Hamlet's father and the old poison-in-the-ear trick

Shakespeare had Hamlet’s father killed by having an unnamed poison poured in his ear while he slept. Setting aside the issue of how one can stay asleep while having something poured in one’s ear, I have to wonder what sort of poison this could have been.

What substance might have been available in medieval Denmark, or even today, that would be quickly fatal if ingested through the ear? Was Willie just having us on with that, and enjoyed the joke so much that he repeated it in the play-within-a-play?

I always took it as a symbol of Gertrude’s infidelity (or whatever you want to call it) to him. Lies are poison taken in through the ear, after all.

I think Knead has it. I can’t come up with anything available for normal nefarious use as in the play that would be fatal right quick when given in one ear sized dose. This is all the more unlikely when you limit the knowledge of toixins to what would have been known in Shakespeare’s time or before.

If you go with all known posions and no other restraints, then perhaps some kind of nerve toxin like Sarin or GB would work. But to administer them without risk to the posioner would be chancy.

It’s certainly no less bizarre than the substance Juliet ingested which stopped her pulse for a period of time… But now I’m confused. Maybe I didn’t read Hamlet closely enough, but are you saying that Getrude was unfaithful to King Hamlet when he was still alive, necessitating lies? I thought she and Claudius got together only after the old man passed away.

I think the text would support that Hamlet believes that she was unfaithful, or at the very least comes to believe so. I think the play-within-a-play presents an unfaithful queen and may even arouse his suspicions.

It’s been a long time, y’all, please don’t make me go get a copy off the shelf. :wink:

It was in an article on medical conditions in Will’s plays. The interpretation given there was that the King had become deaf in one ear due to infection. This left him with a hole where his eardrum should have been. His brother is aware of this and chooses his method accordingly. The poison would have been harmless to anyone with an intact timpanic membrane. But, it flows into the King’s inner ear and kills him.
I don’t remember who wrote the article or where it was published. I don’t know whether the theory has any basis or merit. But, I like the idea

I believe a drop of nicotine in the ear would do the job, causing a nice heart attack. I’m sure thats not what he used, but I’m just saying

One other thing to keep in mind is that the Elizibethan public belived just about anything you’d say about poisons. Remember, this was still around the time that alchemy was maturing into chemistry.

Does it necessarily have to be a toxin? Something corrosive (such as sulfuric acid, or molten lead) would have had a similar effect.

erm, i don’t think this would have flown over well with the whole “secret-poisoning” angle of attack.

i think KneadToKnow is right dead on the money. i sha;ll elaborate further…


A hit. A palpable hit.

Shakespeare and his audiences weren’t so hung up on how “realistic” something was as we are. The fact that the poison did this was a given and no one bothered to wonder exactly what poison Will meant. No one cared what it was, or spent a moment’s thought wondering.

Since you said “or even today” any poison could be put in a solvent of some kind and inserted aurally.

DMSO, a solvent naturally derived from wood pulp could be mixed with ricin, a substance naturally derived from beans and the third most toxic substance known to man.

I watch too many TLC spy shows.

Actually, the poison was not ‘unnamed’, as Old Hamlet mentions that it was henbane (‘juice of cursed hebenon’).

The following page suggests that Shakespeare picked up the word from Marlowe, so he may not have known much about its precise properties.


paperbackwriter and RealityChuck are surely right to say that medical realism was not the point.

The gloss most often put on this passage is that Shakespeare was alluding to Bartolomeo Eustachi’s discovery of what we now call the Eustacian tube. As with so many of the theories about the sources of Shakespeare’s ideas, this can be no more than speculation. It may well be that all he had was a vague understanding that there are tubes in one’s ears. I doubt most people today have a much more sophisticated understanding of the precise structure of their inner ears.

In any case, I think WS meant to suggest that the poisoning was even more sneaky and underhanded than the usual posionings, which are/were of course pretty sneaky and underhanded to begin with.

One could speculate what dramatic device he’d use if he were writing today. But as pointed out by RealityChuck and others, the audiences of the time allowed much more dramatic license.

I have to agree - I recall in The Winter’s Tale that the queen, Hermione, is turned into a statue for 15 years and the king (Leontes, is it?) doesn’t even notice when he’s in the same room as her.

Poetic licence was certainly the thing of the day. Just imagine all the websites that would be deconstructing all of his plot devices otherwise!

:wink: :smiley:

I think Old Will was trying to come up with her version of what we called today a “locked-room mystery;” that is, a body is found inside a locked room, it was obviously a murder, but there’s no weapon in site. By having Claudius kill Old Hamlet in this fashion, no one would suspect him of being the murderer; Hamlet would have seemed to have died of natural causes.

I really doubt that WS gave two seconds thought as to the likelihood of this poison’s effectiveness. Rather, he counted on his audience believing in it.

Murdering people in bizarre ways is one of the staples of revenge tragedy. Just off the top of my head, here are some other nasty ways people died on the Renaissance stage:

– Kissing a poisoned painting; putting on a poisoned helmet (Webster, The White Devil)

– Kissing a poisoned book (ditto, The Duchess of Malfi)

– Kissing a poisoned skull (Tourneur or Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy)

– Being forced to wear a burning crown (anonymous, The Tragedy of Hoffman)

– Being stabbed, poisoned, or shot by entertainers at a masque (many, many plays)

You get the picture. Anyway, some of these other methods of dispatching people make “cursed hebenon” look almost normal.

Didn’t they also believe tomatoes were poisonous?

Well, Hamlet isn’t exactly the most reliable observer, given that either 1) He’s crazy, or 2) He’s pretending to be crazy.

I don’t recall any evidence that Gertrude was unfaithful before Hamlet Sr.'s death, but then again there’s no evidence that she wasn’t. I think it’s open to interpretation.