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Shakespeare's Hamlet famously features a character being killed by having poison poured into his ear. This unusual method of murder has been much referenced in other works since Shakespeare, but where did the idea originally come from? Was it invented by Shakespeare, or inspired by earlier literary works, or inspired by real-life events?

  • The sources that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet are difficult to pinpoint, and much has been written, including on this very site, about the putative Ur-Hamlet. So it's hard to figure out whether Shakespeare lifted the ear-poisoning concept together with his Hamlet story from another source.
  • Twentieth-century scientists have determined that being poisoned through the ear is at least scientifically plausible: the most-cited paper on this appears to be David I. Macht, "A pharmacological appreciation of Shakespeare's Hamlet", Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin 329 (1918), pp. 165-170. I haven't been able to find this paper itself online, but I've looked at a couple of others which cite it. But even if it's plausible, was it done or talked about before Shakespeare?

What is the literary background behind the concept/trope of someone being poisoned through their ear?

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    Pliny mentions that you can cause poisoning through the application of henbane via the ears - These plants are curative of pains in the ears; which is the case also with juice of henbane, applied in moderate quantities, of achillea [snip] "as a preventive also of the madness produced by taking henbane." - gutenberg.org/cache/epub/60688/pg60688-images.html
    – Valorum
    Jan 6 at 20:36
  • @Valorum Yep. The papers I linked go into more detail about that, identifying which type of poison was most plausible to have been used.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 6 at 20:40
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    You mention the scientific-plausibility of being literally poisoned through the ear, but I think it's worth mentioning the common sense plausibility of being metaphorically poisoned through the ear.
    – Stef
    Jan 7 at 19:24

2 Answers 2

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Pliny has already been mentioned in a comment.

Scholars also point to the play The Murder of Gonzago (not extant today), a dramatic treatment of the murder of Francesco Maria I della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in 1538, as a source; e.g. N. Greiner and W.G. Müller in their commentary to a bi-lingual English-German edition of Hamlet. Apparently, Gonzago was said to have been poisoned through the ear. Hamlet later brings up the name when speaking about his "play within the play" in III.2.250ff and says "The story is extant, and written in very choice Italian."

The "literary background" may contain more than just the identification of a possible source. The Ghost already connects the royal ear with the "whole ear of Denmark" (I.5.36), thereby suggesting a crime beyond the killing of one individual. Müller, in his commentary to scene I.5, also mentions that the poisoning through the ear may be seen as an antithesis to Mary's conception of Jesus, which some Mariologists believed to have taken place through her ear.

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  • “Anne's immaculate conception of Mary, which, in the Middle Ages, was believed to have taken place through her ear.” — Can you give more details/sources for this? The nearest I can find on brief Googling is this blog post and a few other discussions of a Syriac/Orthodox tradition that Mary’s conception of Jesus was through the ear, sourced to St Ephraim of Syria — but I can’t find anything similar about St Anne, or mentioning it in middle-ages NW Europe. Jan 8 at 11:05
  • Ugh, the vagueness and ambiguity in that German commentary confused me somewhat. So, the reference is to Mary and Jesus. Btw, a church in Würzburg appears to show a late-medieval iconographic example in a tympanum sculpture. Jan 8 at 17:09
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Harold Jenkins's edition of Hamlet for the Arden Shakespeare (1982) says in a footnote to Hamlet's "A poisons him i'th' garden for his estate" that this appears to echo a folklore motif and quotes The Revesby Play: "for your estate we do your body kill". But this doesn't seem to refer to poisoning via the ear. Hamlet also adds that the play is based on a story in Italian. Jenkins's footnote is of not much help: "This was probably true (...), though Shakespeare's actual source has not been traced."

Jenkins expands on the source in a longer note on pages 507–508, in which he adds that The Murder of Gonzago seems to be based on a real murder, namely that of the Duke of Urbino in 1538;

Gonzago, however, was not the name of the Duke, but of his alleged murderer, Luigi Gonzaga, a kinsman of the Duke's wife, Leonora Gonzaga.

The rest of Jenkin's note is about potential misreadings of names by typesetters (or scribes?) and differences between the Folio and older editions of the play, and does us not bring close to the source of Shakespeare's idea of poisoning via the ear.

G. R. Hibbard's edition of Hamlet for the Oxford Shakespeare (1987), which is also very detailed, doesn't have footnotes for the passages quoted above.

According to Kathryn Harkup's Death by Shakespeare (2022), the idea of administering something through the ear may have come from Pliny:

[Pliny's Natural History] contains a recipe for curing earache using the juice of henbane, opium and rose-oil among other ingredients. The mixture was warmed up and introduced into the ear using a syringe. It would also explain Shakespeare's strange choice of the ear as the site for applying poison.

Harkup points out that the ear is a poor choice for administering poison for two reasons: first, the presence of earwax, and, second, the presence of relatively few blood vessels to absorb the poison.

However, inserting something into the ear, like a syringe or a tube, to deliver the substance could have perforated the eardrum and allowed poison or medicine easier access to the rest of the body.

(Scholars assume that Shakespeare had read Pliny's Natural History because of references to Anthropophagi, Arabian trees that drop gum and the description of the Pontic Sea in Othello. Philemon Holland's translation of Natural History was published in 1601, which would have been too late for Hamlet but before the completion of Othello. But Shakespeare may have read Pliny in Latin anyway.)

According to Caldecott's edition of Hamlet and As You Like It (1832, page 41; links added by me),

It has here however been observed by Dr. Sherwen, that, though neither physiology nor pathology know of any such effects produced by poison, poured into the ear, the medical professors of Shakespeare's day believed, that it might be so introduced into the system; and that the eminent surgeon, Ambrose Paré, our author's contemporary, was suspected of having, when he dressed the ear of Francis II., infused poison into it.

Shakespeare may have gotten the idea from contemporary history, i.e. the suspicions against Ambroise Paré, rather than Pliny or a literary source.

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