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the Nature of Juliet's sleep drug

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by

Bezawit Lemma

on 12 April 2014

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Transcript of the Nature of Juliet's sleep drug

the Nature of Juliet's sleep drug
To begin with, certain herbs,roots and substances are mentioned in Romeo and Juliet such as Mandrake, Absinthe (which is believed to cause seizures) and Wormwood (a very bitter plant), hence the name) as seen in the following quote as an example: "for I had then laid wormwood to my dug." Even Paris is a kind of herb. These could have being the ingredients of Juliet's vial, though none are potent enough to alter one's body in such a way, at least not alone.
Some have speculated that Juliet's potion could have contained chloral hydrate. Chloral hydrate is an organic compound having a chemical composition of C2H3Cl3O2. Today it is used to calm patients before surgery or for those with insomnia, sleep apnea, or other sleep disorders, it is often used to help them fall asleep. However taken in large quantities, chloral hydrate can be fatal. Side effects include nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, rashes, restlessness etc. So it is also a possibility that the vial was a combination of equally potent but subtle substances.
In short, it is quite unlikely for a drug that imitates death in this way to have existed in Shakespeare's day, though, nothing is for certain.
In an attempt to avoid marrying Paris and be reunited with Romeo, Juliet drinks a sleeping drug that makes her appear dead for 42 hours. The plan was conceived by the Friar who also provided her with the potion. Her family discovered her "dead" and laid her in the family tomb and she woke up as planned (with Romeo dead on top of her). Seeing that Romeo has killed himself, she does likewise with his dagger.
Today however, the advancement of technology, research, and funding could allow us to recreate a drug of the kind Juliet took. Some are said to exist among Haitian Voodoo Shamans, although the taker enters a coma for nearly a month. Others that are believed to exist are not at all safe and could cause actual death to the user. The ingredients of said substances are also lethal in their plant state. In truth, this idea has only been explored quite recently, in the 1900's, and the necessity today does not seem to be great.
Even so, what is the likelihood of chloral hydrate being discovered and used in the Elizabethan era? In fact, chloral hydrate was discovered in 1832 by Justus von Liebig in Giessen, Germany.
But one must wonder, could such a substance really exist? what is the likelihood of producing a drug that makes one appear to be dead for a certain amount of time? how did people in the Elizabethan era have the knowledge and the technology to create this potion? What was its necessity in that point of history?
Another thing to consider is the role of a Friar. Aside from his religious duties, Friar Lawrence also seems to have access to substances like the potion, which is questionable. It would rather befit an apothecary than a friar to distribute substances of this kind, seen as Romeo says to the Apothecary "Let me have a dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear as will disperse itself through all the veins that the life-weary taker may fall dead". His actions would likely be deemed unruly by the catholic church, but Friars were also considered to be like secular monks. Therefore, the Friar's role might have been acceptable. It is also a possibility that Friar Lawrence acquired the drug from someone or somewhere else.
wormwood
mandrake
absinthe
paris
haitian voodoo shaman
nightshade berry, one of the most poisonous plants yet the possible component of some sleeping potions
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