Thus with a kiss I die: could pufferfish be the key to a Shakespearean poison?


This coming 23 April marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Just three days later it is the 452nd anniversary of his birth. The Bard has given us many great things, as well as occasional and intriguing uses of poisons. There is the “hebanon” poured in the ear of Hamlet’s father (perhaps an extract ofhellebore); the “liquor” dropped into the eyes of protagonists in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (possibly belladonna), and, of course, the “poisoned entrails”, “sweltered venom” and “root of hemlock” added to the witches cauldron in Macbeth. I thought I would look into just one poison, perhaps the most famous, the mysterious substance swallowed by Juliet to give her the appearance of death.

Is there really a compound that can make someone appear dead yet allow them to revive days later apparently unharmed? When I was recently asked if there was a compound that fitted the Romeo and Juliet scenario, one poison immediately sprang to mind – tetrodotoxin. This poison has been known to give the appearance of death only for victims to revive hours or days later.

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