Tuesday, April 13, 2010

To be or not to be, how was it done?

Kaye: One unusual murder method is at least as old as Shakespeare. The King, Hamlet's father, was killed by Claudius by pouring poison in his ear while he slept.

Here's a bit of the fascinating history behind this murder method. The eustachian tube, connecting the ear and the throat had just been discribed by Bartolommeo Eustachio. The plot of Hamlet, which was probably borrowed from an older 12th-century play called "Historia Danica" written by a guy named Saxo Grammaticus. (So, did he invent grammar? One has to wonder.) In Saxo's play, the king is stabbed, no ear poisoning taking place here.

Eustachio published his findings in a piece called "De Auditus Organis." (Methinks these people were over fond of Latin. Thank goodness Will wrote in English.) According to an article in the NY Times from July 22, 1982, by John Noble Wilford, the ancient Greeks knew about the eustachian tube, but Bart published a detailed description about forty years before "Hamlet" premiered in 1601, or thereabouts. The buzz about the tube may have still been fresh. I suspect news flashes not only traveled more slowly in those days, but stuck around longer, too.

As an aside, a contemporary of Bart's, Gabriele Falloppio, discovered another tube at around the same time.

But the ear to throat connection is only part of the story. What did Claudius pour into the King's ear anyway? "… juice of cursed hebenon in a vial…" it says in "Hamlet." Dr. Gwynne B. Evans, a professor of English at Harvard University and textual editor of the Riverside edition of Shakespeare's works, says this stuff was mentioned by Pliny, who said it would "injure the understanding."

In the two printings of the play, nearly twenty years apart, the poison is spelled "hebena" and "hebenon," (or, as I also found it, hebona and hebonon--I don't have access to the originals) leaving doubt not only as to what the stuff was, but how it was supposed to be spelled. (I'm so grateful I live in the age of, more or less, standardized spelling. People back then didn't even spell their own names consistently.) Wiki says it could be either yew or ebony (guaiac). Ebony was sometimes spelled hebony, so that makes sense. The trouble is, it's not very poisonous. Yew is much more so. Something derived from henbane is another possibility. No matter what it was, Will might have borrowed the whole concoction from a guy named Thomas Kidd, another playwright of the time.

KD: I vote for henbane. According to Wikipedia, the "hen" probably originally meant death, not chickens. (Who woulda thought it?)

Also, henbane is a major ingredient in witches flying ointment, a hallucinogenic mix supposedly used by witches.
Flying ointment

And maybe it was just a hallucinogen? Maybe Hamlet's father wasn't dead, he wasn't a ghost, he was just on a "trip" where he thought he was dead...the possibilities are endless, aren't they?

Kaye: During Will's lifetime, a French doctor, Ambrosie Parex, was suspected of killing his own king, Francis II, by giving him an ear infection. All these happenings must have swirled around in genius Will's fertile brain until "Hamlet" spilled out. We're lucky it did!

Other links used:
New Light on Murder of Hamlet's Father

Was Pouring Poison in Ear Common?

What Poison Killed King Hamlet?


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