Watching flesh: poison and the fantasy of temporal control in Renaissance England


  • I wish to thank Jacqueline Vanhoutte, Lois Potter, Julian Yates, and Tim Spaulding for their astute comments and suggestions during the writing of this piece. I would also like to thank the University of Delaware for the General University Research Program grant which facilitated my research on clock and watch technologies.


During the Renaissance, English writers often depict poison as a weapon capable of transforming a victim's body into a timepiece, with death predictable to the year, month, day, and hour. English literary works, especially dramatic ones, however, contain numerous instances of poisons that fail to act precisely, or to act as intended. These failures serve as a useful departure point for exploring Renaissance ideas of clock-time. The dream of temporal control represented by poison promises an alignment between timepieces and bodies. When poisons fail to create this promised synchronicity, they reveal both the interdependence of bodies and horological devices and the difficulties in regulating either one.