Shakespeare was dead wrong … an asp did not kill Cleopatra

The monk gave Julia a potion that he said would stop her breathing for 42 hours, her body would go cold and she would stiffen to give the appearance of death.

But would it have been possible for anyone in Elizabethan England to fake their own death in such a convincing way? dr Harkup thinks it’s possible, albeit unlikely.

“The interesting thing is that there is a venom that might be convincing that it gives a death-like appearance, and that venom is tetrodotoxin, the venom you get in puffer fish,” said Dr. Harkup.

“Ten milligrams of this stuff can kill an adult, that’s as much as a grain of salt, you hardly see it. When you get the right dosage, you can slow your breathing to the point where it’s very difficult to detect.

“So it could be that with the right dose, that glow of death could happen… so I think it’s a possibility. The problem is that Shakespeare knew nothing about puffer fish.”

However, she said it’s possible stories of such a venom reached British shores from traders working in the East and Japan, home of the pufferfish.

Trouble with Hamlet

Hamlet’s father was killed by his brother Claudius by poison poured into the sleeping king’s ear during a garden snooze.

dr Harkup said that from Claudius’ point of view, this was a “terrible idea” and a deeply inefficient way to assassinate someone.

“There aren’t many blood vessels around this part of you. Your ear is protected with cartilage, pieces of skin, wax, etc. Just getting the poison into the body properly to do the damage — that’s not really going to work,” she said. Shakespeare was dead wrong … an asp did not kill Cleopatra

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