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ON THE NATURE OF SHAKESPEARE'S CURSED HEBONA RYANJ. HUXTABLE* One of the most famous murders in English literature occurs in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, Prince ofDenmark. In the play, Hamlet's father is killed while asleep by having a poison, either hebenon (Folio) or hebona (Quartos), poured into his ear by his brother, Hamlet's uncle. The dead man's spirit returns to the battlements of Elsinore one night (Act I, Scene 5) to describe graphically the action of the poison to the disturbed Hamlet. If it had not been for this unearthly assistance, the crime would have been a near-perfect murder. A not inconsiderable literature has discussed the identity of the toxin used without a generally acceptable conclusion being reached, but no pharmacologist has as yet passed an opinion on the matter. Among the agents suggested as a source of hebenon are ebony (Diospyrus spp.) [I]; lignum vitae (the tree, Guaiacum officinale) [2]; the yew tree, Taxus baccata [3, 4]; henbane (Hyocyamus niger) (Thistleton-Dyer, quoted in [5], Grey, quoted in [4]) [5, 6]; tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) [7]; and spotted hemlock (Conium maculatum) [8, 9]. Other references are given in Dyce [10]. I review here the evidence for and against each plant, integrating the philologie, literary, pharmacological, and botanical materials. In considering which poison Shakespeare intended, one must be aware of the state of available knowledge around 1600. For this purpose, various herbáis spanning the years 1578 to 1657 have been consulted [11-15]. Although John Goodyear's 1652-1655 translation of Dioscorides was not published until this century [12], Dioscorides was widely known, and to that extent Goodyear's manuscript can be taken as representative of the information available to the educated herbalist. In the play, the Ghost describes the action of the toxin in detail. A *Department of Pharmacology, College of Medicine, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85724.© 1993 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 003 1-5982/93/3602-0707$0 1 .00 262 RyanJ. Huxtable ¦ Shakespeare's Cursed Hebona typical modern text, the New Temple Shakespeare, edited by M. R. Ridley, reads: Sleeping within my orchard, My custom always of the afternoon, Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, And in the porches of my ears did pour The leperous distilment, whose effect Holds such an enmity with blood of man, That swift as quicksilver it courses through The natural gates and alleys of the body, And with a sudden vigour it doth posset And curd, like eager droppings into milk, The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine, And a most instant tetter bark'd about, Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust, All my smooth body. This passage has been adduced as evidence that Shakespeare was aware of the eustachian tube [16]. Before the various candidates for hebona/hebenon are discussed, it is worth examining carefully this precise description of its action. Words are apt to change their meanings with time. Johnson's Dictionary [17], the first authoritative dictionary of the English language, defines the relevant words as follows: distilment "that which drops" (one definition of distillation being "the act of pouring out in drops"); porch "entrance, covered walk"; posset "to curdle"; curd "to coagulate"; eager "sharp, sour, acid"; tetter "a scab" (i.e., a rash); lazar "one deformed and nauseous with filthy and pestilential diseases." Shakespeare himself used some of these words on other occasions . For example, the following lines occur in All's Well That Ends Well (Act I, Scene 3): God's mercy, maiden! does it curd thy blood To say I am thy mother? Curd here carries the sense of "freeze" or "chill" rather than "coagulate." The action of hebenon described in Hamlet can therefore be glossed as "drops of a poison that produces a leprosy-like condition were poured into my ear canal. Rapidly entering the circulation, the poison chilled my blood and coagulated it like acid dropped into milk. Right away, a rash covered my whole body." The Literary Background Modern texts almost invariably use the name hebenon for the poison. However, this is an emendation of the earliest texts. Hamlet was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 262-280
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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