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What's Your Poison?

A Description of the Poison Possibilities in Romeo & Juliet

It is hard to tell exactly what Romeo took because there are not a lot of symptoms described, just the fact that it is a quick death. Because of the speed, one suggestion has been cyanide which would cause convulsions and then death within minutes because of respiratory failure. You can make cyanide from plant products and there is evidence that it was known in Shakespeare’s day, but the plant versions take a bit longer than the modern chemical versions. Another possibility would be Monk’s hood which was a well known poison in ancient & medieval times. The active ingredient is aconitine which causes a spreading paralysis, beginning at the lips and kills by respiratory failure as well. It acts like puffer fish (fugo) poison (hence the numbness & tingling of the lips). Most of the other common poisons from that day were slower and/or cause a lot of vomiting, diarrhea, and agitation. Cyanide would be the more likely in your Chicago setting.

The best options for Juliet are opium, mandrake or a combination.  The one conflict with mandrake is that Juliet remarks that she remembers where she is while some of the active ingredients in mandrake cause a mild amnesia. 

Susan A. DeRiemer, Ph.D.

The brief answer is this: arsenic was the poison most frequently used for murder in the late 1800s.  If you feel a bit let down by that simple answer, read on!

19th Century America was actually OBSESSED with the notion of poisoning; detective novels became fashionable in this era, most of which involved murder mysteries centered around poisoning crimes.  Actual acts of poisoning were few and far between; there were only two cases in Manhattan in the early 1890s, but the "fad" took off and there were ultimately dozens more across the Midwest by the end of the decade.  The reason for the uptick in poisoning incidents was twofold.  First, the populations became increasingly fearful of the possibility of poisoning because, unlike other forms of murder, it was nearly untraceable.  Much like plane crashes and shark attacks today, the population as a whole overvalued the possibility of a sensationalized but ultimately extremely rare event largely because such an incident was nearly impossible to control.  As the fear grew, so did the popularity of the topic in fiction, and, ultimately, life imitates art (the advent of serial killers followed a similar path).  The second reason for the statistical upswing in poisoning cases is that, well, statistics lie. Popular fear of poisoning incidents lead to the invention of toxicology as a field of medicine in the early 1840s; it wasn't until decades later, however, that doctors actually developed reasonably accurate methods to detect the presence of poisoning during autopsy.  As doctors became better able to detect poison, reported incidents of poisoning grew; it is possible that people poisoned one another with the same frequency as before, it was just now easier to detect!

Shane Valenzi


Romeo & Juliet

Educator's Guidebook

Synopsis of Romeo and Juliet

What's Your Poison

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