Sunday, August 15, 2010
THE MURDER OF KING HAMLET
My custom always of the afternoon
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of mine ear did pour
The leprous distillment.
I've always wondered if the murder of King Hamlet as described by Shakespeare would be possible. It seems a bit unlikely that pouring poison into the ear could cause death and modern crime TV shows like CSI have never (to my knowledge) exploited this possibility. However, research revealed that not only have several modern doctors taken up this question, they have concluded that it is indeed possible to murder someone in this manner.
"Ototoxicity is drug or chemical damage to the inner ear. This section of the ear contains both the hearing mechanism and the vestibulocochlear nerve, the nerve that sends hearing and balance information to the brain. Because of this, ototoxic drugs may cause lack of hearing, and loss of sense of balance.The extent of ototoxicity varies with the drug, the dose, and other conditions." Wikipedia
"In this article I attempt to analyze and discuss in the light of present medical information this scene of Hamlet. How did Shakespeare come to this singular idea? Could the venom extracted from a narcotic plant with beautiful leaves, a foul odor, yellow flowers above and purple below, have been responsible for the death of King Hamlet? If it is accepted that the extracted henbane was of good quality, could the manner chosen by the fratricide have been effective? I conclude that it was possible to accomplish the murder as it was written in the tragedy...It is hard, however, to accept that, in this way, such a quick poisoning would take place. On the other hand, the tympanic membrane can be perforated and the highly vascularized middle ear is connected to the pharynx by the eustachian tube. Something similar happens with intoxication by atropine contained in eyedrops, where the drug passes by way of the lacrimal duct toward the nose and is eventually swallowed. Chronic otorrhea was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s times and there are indications that physicians of that time might have known that fluids in the middle ear could pass into the pharynx and that a substance instilled into an ear with a tympanic perforation could find its way to the pharynx and be swallowed." Scopolamine and the Murder of King Hamlet, ARCH OTOLARYNGOL HEAD NECK SURG/VOL 128, JULY 2002 by Basilio Aristidis Kotsias, MD, PhD
So it seems that if the murderer was aware that King Hamlet had some kind of perforation in his ear drum and somehow caught him at a time when he was unlikely to wake up when having something poured into his ear, his strange plan might have succeeded. Maybe he saw this as the only way to deliver the poison or maybe there is symbolic significance for poisoning the ear in particular, but modern science shows us that what was probably just a cool idea to Shakespeare has a foundation in medical reality.