Toxic Encounters: Poisoning in Early Modern English Literature and Culture



This essay discusses the various ways poisoning signified as a literal act and symbolic motif in the literature and culture of early modern England. I offer an overview of the scholarship on the subject, from its early focus on dramatic imagery and questions of historical prevalence, to its interest in poisoning’s cultural and rhetorical meanings. This field of study has enjoyed significant growth in the past 10 years with increased critical attention to embodiment, political rhetoric, and encounters between dominant and marginalized groups. Poisoning serves as an important index of early modern ideas about violence, language, health (individual and social), gender, and nationhood. I argue, finally, that it is most significant in its production of a rhetoric of terror, one that may be particularly situated in its historical moment, but also that resonates with readers and critics of later periods.