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From Hamlet’s father being murdered by poison, to Romeo killing himself when he drinks poison, and several instances of hemlock, dragon’s scales, hebenon and others in between, Shakespeare utilizes poison as a dramatic device in several of his works. The use of poison was not just an easy tool for a plot twist, however, since poison was both a pervasive fear at all levels of society as well as a convenient and readily available method to dispatch someone, given that poison was incredibly hard to trace back to the criminal that administered it. The fear of poison was exacerbated by a broad ignorance of chemistry, resulting in many of the accepted treatments for illness being, in themselves, poison (Syphilis was routinely treated with mercury, for example, which is toxic.) Doctors, as well as monarchs, developed elaborate and unusual tactics for prevention and cure for poison, while those seeking to overthrow a monarch, or take out their enemy, used poison to come up with some sophisticated and complex designs for murder. Here today to share with us the history of real poisons from Shakespeare’s lifetime used for medical and criminal application, as well as some ordinary items no one knew was trying to kill them, is our guest and author of The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul. We’re delighted to welcome Eleanor Herman to the show today.  

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Eleanor Herman is a New York Times bestselling author, historian, and host for tv shows on History Channel and National Geographic. She joins us today to discuss her book titled The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul, in which she explores the history of poison and toxins, including those that were present in the life of William Shakespeare.

She is also the author of Sex with Kings, Sex with the Queen, Sex with Presidents, and several other works of popular history. She has hosted Lost Worlds for the History Channel and The Madness of Henry VIII for the National Geographic Channel, as well as two seasons of America: Fact vs. Fiction. She is a host of Wondrium’s (The Great Courses) recent release: Sex in the Middle Ages. Herman, who happily wears Renaissance gowns, lives with her husband, her naughty yellow Lab, and three very spoiled cats in Williamsburg, VA. 

I’ll be asking Eleanor Herman about:

  • We’ve read about royal families having official taste testers whose job it was to prevent the monarch from being poisoned, but one fact that suprised me from Eleanor’s book was the use of unicorn horns in this endeavor. Eleanor, how were unicorn horns used as poison prevention? 
  • Were there any poison antidotes available in Shakespeare’s lifetime? What were considered the most reliable, and how were they tested? 
  • One major poison for Elizabeth I , in particular was makeup. Eleanor, how as makeup poisonous? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Eleanor Herman recommends:

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul

The Lost Prince, the Life and Death of Henry Stuart by Catherine MacLeod (2012)

Unnatural Murder, poison at the court of James I, Anne Somerset (1997) Thomas Overbury’s arsenic poisoning. 

The secrets of the reverend… piemont..against diverse diseases, wounds, and other accidents….(1595) https://archive.org/details/secretsofreveren00rusc/page/n3/mode/2up 

Additional Resources from Cassidy

Poison Article with more information on toadstones

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • First record of unicorns and their poison prevention
  • 19th century records of unicorns preventing poison
  • 16th century biblical references to unicorns
  • 16th century illlustration of a unicorn purifying water with its’ horn
  • Illustration of Toadstones from the 16th century
  • Example of “serpent’s tongue” that was thought to prevent poison, during the reign of James I
  • Copy of the Exchequer record showing James I gifting a cup made from unicorn horn
  • Photo of a 16th century unicorn horn
  • Photo of real toadstones
  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s works about poison
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!