How did Hamlet’s Father Die?

I’m helping to direct a young actor playing Hamlet and we’re going over the “O That This Too Too Solid Flesh” speech. Going over the text, it occurred to me: what happened to Hamlet’s father?

Shakespeare makes it clear that Claudius poisoned Hamlet’s father with a vial of poison that he put in the king’s ear:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 796-805.

The Ghost calls the poison “cursed hebannon,” which fis a poison that Shakespeare made up. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s original source for Hamlet makes no reference to poisoning, but that the king was stabbed in front of his own court. I think Shakespeare might have changed this simply because Queen Elizabeth was concerned about assassination herself, and Shakespeare didn’t want to make it look like he approved of assassination. Then again, maybe he changed it so that the murder didn’t seem like a repeat of Julius Caesar, (which Shakespeare’s company performed the year before Hamlet, (Source: New York Times, 1982).

The Ghost describes how, when the poison went through his ear canal, he experienced violent swelling, sores, and unimaginable pain. He actually compares himself to Lazarus, Jesus’ friend in the Bible who died of leprosy.

And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body. Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 807-811.

Detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Rembrandt c. 1630

Sadly, Leprosy is still prevalent in third world countries so its symptoms are still very well understood: CONTENT WARNING: DISTURBING IMAGES IN THIS VIDEO

The poison is made up, but could such a poison actually exist? I found a wonderful article from the Journal of ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat), where the author John Riddington Young posits the kinds of real-world poisons that might have this horrific effect on Hamlet’s father.

What actual poison was used? Shakespeare states, “the juice of cursed Hebenon” [6] but sadly, there is no such drug. Did he mean hemlock, or perhaps henbane? Laurence Olivier actually substitutes the name hemlock in his 1948 film. Belladonna, aconite and nicotine have all been suggested, but the most likely culprit is taxine from the yew tree. It is a deadly poison and its Old English name was heben. Shakespeare would certainly have known of it; he says in Richard II, archers bend ‘their bows of doubly fatal Eugh’ [7] (implying that apart from the arrows killing foes, there is an intrinsic toxicity in the wood).

“History of ENT – Murder most foul, strange and unnatural”

I found a case study of a real case of Yew poisoning that emphasizes that it is incredibly fast-acting, “Fast as quicksilver”, that it can be misdiagnosed as another poison (like a snake bite, as Claudius later claims), and that it has no known antidote, the perfect way to kill a king:

. The taxine alkaloids (for example, taxine A, 2-deacetyltaxine A, isotaxine B, 1-deoxytaxine B) derived from p-dimethylaminohydroxycinnamic acid are the effective poisons of the yew [1]. In chemical terms, the compound is structurally related to veratrine, and the presence of an unsaturated lactone group makes this group of alkaloids similar to digitalis. Poisoning with the latter may be falsely diagnosed during a toxicological examination. Cardiac disturbances after intoxication by yew are ascribed mainly to the alkaloids paclitaxel and taxine B, affecting sodium/calcium permeability in cells [2]. The taxine alkaloid is absorbed through the digestive tract very rapidly, and the signs of poisoning manifest themselves after 30 to 90 minutes. An infusion made from 50 to 100g of needles is considered to be fatal [35], as no antidote is known.

Vališ, M., Kočí, J., Tuček, D. et al. Common yew intoxication: a case report. J Med Case Reports 8, 4 (2014).

So if you are playing Hamlet, in addition to the sadness and anger you feel after losing your father, you could also feel revulsion and pity at the painful, disgusting and cowardly way he was murdered. Truly, “MOST FOUL STRANGE AND MOST UNNATURAL.”

Shakespeare Week Is Coming at will be honoring the contributions of Shakespeare during the very first Shakespeare Week on March 21-27th.

I’m honored to take part in this celebration, and I’m offering several aclasses which relate to Shakespeare in an engaging way. Here’s the schedule below:

If you want to sign up for one of my classes, please visit my Outschool page:

Hope to see you during Shakespeare Week!

Denzel Washington talks Shakespeare. Mourns the loss of Sidney Poitier

If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.

Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.

Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.

Activities for Students and Teachers: Macbeth Escape Room

I made a digital escape room for Macbeth, as part of my class, “Macbeth: An Immersive Educational Experience,” which you can register for at a discount this week only. I’m presenting this digital escape room as an activity for teachers to teach their student’s knowledge of the plot of the play and use their observation and research skills to escape from a “cursed castle.”

What Is a digital escape room?

In a normal escape room, you are locked in a room and have to follow clues and solve puzzles in order to find a series of keys, codes, and combinations to unlock the door and get out of the room. In a digital escape room, you solve online puzzles and use passwords and key codes to unlock some kind of digital content.

My escape room is designed to test your knowledge of the play, give you a chance to learn about the history behind it. Most escape rooms use the a variety of locks such as:

  • Standard combination locks
  • Direction locks (where the lock has arrows taht you have to push in the correct direction, in the right order).
  • Color locks (where we put different colors in a sequence.

A digital escape room uses these concepts and adapts them to work within the context of a website or other digital experience. For example, I made a direction lock based on the direction a dagger points and made a short animation of a dagger with the text of Macbeth’s famous dagger speech.

The student has to surf through five webpages to find the answers to the puzzles, then imputs the answer in a Google form. Once he or she unlocks all six puzzles, they are permitted to leave the witches’ castle. Here’s a preview of the puzzles:

Part I: The Gate

There’s a website called Flippity which allows you to make little online puzzles so I embedded it on one page of my website. In this case, it has six locks that you have to unlock by typing answers to trivia questions related to “Macbeth,” such as “What object appeared to Macbeth before he killed the king?” The final lock requires you to read a short article on the curse of Macbeth, so you can enter it on the website.

Part II: The Magic Mirror

There’s a website called a magic mirror, which if you click on the mirror, it hyperlinks to an image that spells out the next answer for the Google form.

Part III: Birnam Wood

I wanted to teach the students about verse scantion and what an iambic pentamer iine is. I wanted to get the class to learn the pattern of unaccented beats (which Shakespeare scholars mark with a U), and accented beats marked with a /, as in the couplet below:

To get the students to practice making an iambic pentameter line, I embedded a Google Slides presentation in the website which has pictures of unarmed and armed soldiers. A key indicates that you are to count the soldiers and input the U/U/ pattern into the Google Form:

Screenshot from my Birnam Wood Activity.

So, there’s a preview of the Digital Escape Room I hope this inspires you to try this type of activity in your class. If you want to use this activity, shoot me an email and I’ll give you a teacher’s guide. Please also consider signing up for my class!

Activities For Teachers and Students: Mock Trial of Romeo and Juliet

If you’re a teacher and your students are reading Romeo and Juliet, one question that your students might innevitably ask is, who’s to blame? The play ends with The Prince and the Watch trying to ascertain what happened over the past 5 days to Romeo and Juliet. He seems to place blame loosely on everyone, but it does make one wonder- will anyone face consequences for the numerous deaths, damages, anguish, and broken promises that resulted from the double suicides?

In 2021, I decided to create an activity that would allow the students in the English class I worked in to decide who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. I developed the project with the help of an English teacher and a real judge. We designed the project so it would test the kids’ knowledge of the play, and their persuassive speaking abilities (which we worked on in a previous unit).

I would like to share the journey of this project, which I think is a lovely way to get kids to engage with English Literature, as well as touching on other topics in high school English courses like persuassive writing, critical thinking, and research.

What kind of trial is it to be?

My original idea was to put Friar Laurence on trial for criminal negligence and/ or conspiracy to assist a suicide, There’s been plenty of classrooms, comedy sketches, and even some juries that blame Friar Laurence for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, including the US Supreme Court, who put him in the dock as part of a mock trial at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC bac in 2016. If you go to C-Span’s website, you can watch the full trial itself:

Though mock trials have tried Friar Laurence for murder in the past, the teacher I worked with decided we wanted to be sensitive to the issue of suicide and not place the blame for suicide on anyone other than Romeo and Juliet. This is a valid concern- since teenagers do occassionaly encounter suicide, we didn’t want to suggest that anyone could be held responsible for someone else’s suicide. However, if you decide to have a criminal murder or manslaughter trial, you can do so.

Our trial chose to focus on a different sort of negligence: we noted that, although Friar Laurence arguably isn’t guilty of murder, he certainly did perform the wedding of two minors without parental consent, a wedding that their parents absolutely didn’t apprve of, and that arguably caused irreperable financial damages to the houses of Capulet and Montegue. I therefore went about consstructing a criminal trial based on this perceived negligence.


In most states in the United states, parental consent is required to marry a minor, so in reality, Friar Laurence would almost certainly be found guilty of illegal marriage. The judge I worked with wanted to give the case a fighting chance, so she created a fae law that is just for our class called the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT, which you can read below. This law is designed to provide a loophole for Friar Laurence that allows a clergyman to perform a minor wedding without parental consent if the parents are themselves creating an unsafe and dangerous home. Our teacher liked this aspect of the case, becasue it allows the class to consider the partriarchial values of Lord Capulet, who for most of the play, treats his daugher like a piece of property, and threatens her with dire consequences if she chooses her own husband. This is the central argument of the trial- Was Friar Laurence negligent and irresponsible in marrying Romeo and Juliet, or was he respecting Juliet’s autonomy and trying to free her from an abusive household? Below is a complete description of the project, a presentation I created for the class, and some downloadable materials to get you started. If you have questions or suggestions for other projects, let me know!


A mock trial is an excellent way to engage a student’s critical thinking skills, persuasive writing skills, and challenge their knowledge of a sequence of events. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, several violent deaths occur and at then end of the play it’s ambiguous who will be punished and how. Therefore, to engage students in the play, they can play judge, jury, and lawyers in a trial to answer the question: was Friar Laurence guilty of performing an illegal marriage?


  1. Test the student’s knowledge of the plot of the play
  2. Get them to make persuasive arguments defending and prosecuting the character of Friar Lawrence.
  3. Come to conclusions 
  4. Get the Jury to look at the rhetoric of the prosecution and defense.


  1. Quiz on the play to help assign roles- The highest scorers get to be lawyers and prosecutor, the next highest get to be witnesses, and the lowest scorers get to be the jury.
  2. Mock trial where the students take on the roles of witnesses, judge, lawyer, prosecutor, and jury
  3. The Jury delivers a verdict
  4. Class discussion.

Before the Trial

Only people who know the plot of the play should be allowed to be the lawyers, so I propose that before the trial starts, each student should be quizzed on the plot of the play. The students who score the highest should be allowed to play the prosecutor and defense lawyer. The third, fourth, and fifth highest scoring students can be The Judge and the two witnesses. Everyone else can be the jury. I would propose that the teacher or teaching assistant play the part of Friar Lawrence, as he/she will have to answer the toughest questions and know the most about the play. Of course, if you have a student with real acting talent, he or she can play Friar Lawrence. 

The Trial will take place over at least two days- one day for constructing legal arguments, and one day for the trial itself.

When the trial begins, each person will get a character sheet that details who they are, what their role is, in the trial, and what they know about the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Unlike other mock trials, this will not be scripted. Think of it more like a D&D character sheet or murder mystery game; the characters are given information but not told what to say.  Below is a sample character sheet I made for the Prosecuting Attorney.

Structure Of the Trial

The Prosecutor intends to prove that Friar Lawrence performed an illegal marriage because he married two minors without their parent’s consent. The Defense intends to prove that the marriage was legal under the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT (a fake law made up for our class).

  1. Jury Instructions- The Judge
  2. Opening Statements- Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer
  3. Witness For the Prosecution- Lord Capulet
  4. Cross-Examination- Lord Capulet
  5. Witness For the Defense- Ghost Juliet
  6. Witness For the Prosecution- The Nurse
  7. Cross-Examination- The Nurse
  8. Defendant’s Testimony- Friar Lawrence
  9. Cross-Examination- Friar Lawrence
  10. Witness For the Prosecution- Lady Capulet
  11. Cross-Examination- Lady Capulet
  12. Closing Statements- Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer
  13. Post Trial Instructions- Judge
  14. The Verdict- Jury
  15. Weighing In- Judge

Worksheet content-

All characters will have a packet explaining who they are, their goal for the trial, and what their character knows about the alleged crime. They also have a copy of the structure of the trial, so they know when to speak. During the pre-trial prep day, the lawyers will decide on questions to ask the witnesses and construct arguments based on their knowledge of the law and the play. 

  1. -Friar Lawrence
  2. -The Nurse
  3. -Lord Capulet
  4. -Prosecutor
  5. -Defense Lawyer
  6. -Jury
  7. -Judge

Everyone will receive a copy of the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS so the prosecution and jury can construct their arguments, and the Jury can judge the effectiveness of those arguments.





  1. The purpose of this act is to protect the integrity of the family and the independent rights of minor children.  


  1. No officiant shall perform the marriage of a minor child without the consent of the child’s parent, unless such minor child has first been determined to be emancipated and such determination was in the minor’s best interest.


  1. Officiant means a person authorized to perform weddings, including but not limited to a priest, minister, friar or pastor. 
  2. Minor child means a person 14 years but under the age of 18 years.
  3. The parent of a minor child shall mean the biological father of said child.
  4. The factors used in the determination of emancipation shall include the following;
  1. The demonstrated ability and capacity to manage his/her own affairs,
  2. The demonstrated ability and capacity to live independently, 
  3. The wishes of the minor child,
  4. The wishes of the parent,
  5. Any other factors including compensation which could influence the officiant.

      7) The factors used in the determination of the best interest of the minor child shall include the following:

  1. The age of the minor child,
  2. The home environment of the minor child, especially  if there is a risk of violence or harm to the minor child,
  3. Whether the marriage of the child promotes a union that is beneficial to society,
  4. Whether the minor child can manage his/her own finances.
  5. Whether the minor child has demonstrated other characteristics of maturity

     8) An emancipated child shall be entitled to enter into contracts, marry and enjoy the legal rights of an adult without the permission of his/her parent.

    9)  Whoever violates this law shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, which is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.  

Jury instructions (to be handed out ot the jury)

The jury need not be given a passive role- they can write down reactions on how effective the lawyers wer in presenting their arguments, which witness gave the best testimony, etc. In most jury trials, judges instruct the jury on how to put aside their personal biases when listening to the evidence, which I’ve written into some instructions below, based on instructions that Judge Taylor gave me.

So, that is my version of the Romeo and Juliet mock trial that you can freely use in your classroom. If you want to use it, please just give me credit. If you want to collaborate with me on your version, send me an email. I hope this project can be a widespread activity that will help students hone their persuasion, analysis, research, and of course, their interpretation of literature in a realistic context.

You can download the entire project for free on my TeachersPayTeachers page:

Thanks for reading, and see you in court!

New Outschool Lesson: Basics Of Stage Combat!

I’m teaching a series of online summer classes and I am very excited about this one in particular. I will teach a short class for kids ages 10-18, about duelling and swords. I will then explain basic stage combat moves, and finally choreograph a short fight for the students to do at home!

Registration starts now! Space is limited so go to, ASAP. Cost is $5 per child.

Shakespeare on Riots

Today is March 15th, a day that history still bewares, because of the infamous day when armed, violent conspirators went to the Senate and attempted to overthrow elected rulers. For obvious reasons, this put me in mind of the heinous actions of another group of conspirators stormed another Senate and tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow democracy.

January 6th, 2021 (which, coincidently, was Twelfth Night, one of my favorite Shakespeare-themed holidays), was a tragedy for multiple reasons. The protestors broke windows, destroyed furniture, defaced statues, broke into both chambers of Congress, and probably would have harmed lawmakers, in a violent protest of both the US presidential election and the Senate vote in Georgia that week.

Let me be clear, this was sedition and treason and everyone involved should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anyone who says otherwise is blatantly attacking our cherished democracy, and spitting in the face of the rule of law. Unfortunately, Republicans in both chambers have been unwilling to condemn their actions for fear of alienating their base. If this is what the Republican party has come to, the party doesn’t deserve the name. A republic protects the right of the people to elect its representatives and dedicates itself to the peaceful transition of power. Left unchallenged, groups like this will bring anarchy and tyranny to our country.

How do I know this? Because it happened before. Shakespeare has long dramatized real historic events where people rise up against their governments (for better or worse). In all cases, whether protesting a famine, a war, or a cruel tyrannical usurper, the riots never accomplish anything except bringing chaos and bloodshed. Sometimes these ignorant rioters are goaded by charismatic powerful figures, but these upper-class characters are only exploiting the rioters, using their violence as a way to get power for themselves. So, let’s examine the language, tactics, and effects of rioters in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part III, and Sir Thomas More:

Example 1: Julius Caesar

George Ed Robertson Antony
(c) Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As I covered before in my “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” post, during Antony’s famous funeral speech, he galvanizes the Roman crowd, first to mourn Caesar, then to revenge his death. How do they do this? By burning the houses of the conspirators and rioting in the street. They even kill a man just because he has the same name as one of the conspirators:

What does this violence accomplish? Nothing. Caesar is still dead. Brutus is still alive (though on the run). Antony merely wished to punish Brutus, and get the mob to hate him while he secretly cheats them out of their money. In Act Four, Antony becomes the de facto ruler of Rome because he leveraged his performance at the funeral, and uses his newfound powers to take money away from the citizens that Caesar promised to give them in his will. He manipulated them for his own purposes and duped them for political power.

Example 2: Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part ii.

Henry VI is the only king in English history to be crowned twice, deposed twice, and buried twice (Saccio 91). As the play begins, King Henry has already lost France, lost his mind, and lost the respect of his people. Around 1455, John Hardyng wrote a contrast between Henry’s father and himself. He laments that Henry the Fifth died so soon and then exhorts Henry to keep the quarrelsome lords in his government from warring among themselves.

Withstand, good lord, the outbreak of debates.
And chastise well also the rioters
Who in each shire are now confederates
Against your peace, and all their maintainers
For truly else will fall the fairest flowers
Of your great crown and noble monarchy
Which God defend and keep through his mercy.

(Excerpt from Harding’s Chronicle, English Historical Documents, 274).

Henry’s political ineptness was why Richard of York challenged his claim to the throne. Though Richard had little legal claim as king, he believed himself to be better than Henry.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part ii, York tries to get the people’s support by engineering a crisis that he can easily solve. York dupes a man named Jack Cade to start a riot in London and demand that the magistrates crown Cade as the true king.

Biography of Richard, Duke of York, who challenged King Henry VI for his right to be king.

York and Cade start a conspiracy theory that Cade is the true heir to the throne and the royal family suppressed his claim and lied about his identity. Cade starts calling himself John Mortimer, a distant uncle of the king whom York himself admits is long dead:

The Royal National Theater’s production of Henry VI, Parts II, and 7. Jack Cade appears at about the 7-minute mark.
And this fell tempest shall not cease to rage
Until the golden circuit on my head,
Like to the glorious sun's transparent beams,
Do calm the fury of this mad-bred flaw.
And, for a minister of my intent,
I have seduced a headstrong Kentishman,
John Cade of Ashford,
To make commotion, as full well he can,
Under the title of John Mortimer.

Just like Cade and his rebels, the January 6th rioters were motivated by lies and conspiracies designed to crush their faith in their legitimate ruler. Even more disturbing, these rioters are pawns in the master plan of a corrupt political group. York doesn’t care that Cade isn’t the real king; he just wants to use Cade’s violence as an excuse to raise an army, one that he can eventually use against King Henry himself.

15th century woodcut from the War Of the Roses.

Similar to York’s lies and conspiracy-mongering, many Republicans have refused to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and some are actual proponents of Q Anon conspiracies!

A lot of Republicans deserve blame for fanning the flames of rebellion on January 6th, but arguably former President Trump deserves most of the blame. Even Rush Limbaugh admitted that Trump spread a huge amount of conspiracy theories without believing in any of them. He does this because he wants Americans to be afraid of imaginary threats that he claims he can solve. What’s easier to solve than a problem that doesn’t exist? Much like York, Trump tried to hold onto power by pressuring his supporters to pressure the Capital, feeding them lies about election fraud, and a secret democratic Satanic cult. Thus radicalized, they resolved to do what Cade’s mob did: “Kill all the lawyers.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of lawyers in the Senate.

As Dick the Butcher points out, most people don’t actually believe Cade is truly John Mortimer, they are just so angry at the king and the oppressive English government, that they are willing to follow him in a violent mob to take their vengeance upon the monarchy. This is why they try Lord Saye and execute him just for the crime of reading and writing! Similarly, the mob attacking the capital was made up of die-hard conspiracy adherents, and people just angry at the Democratic Party.

Like I said before, Cade and his mob is just a pawn in the machinations of York. Eventually the king’s enforcer, Lord Clifford convinces most of them to abandon Cade, and Cade himself dies a humiliating death- on the run from the law and starving, Cade is murdered by a farmer after trying to steal some food. After Joe Biden became the 46th President, many of the conspiracy group Q-Anon, who had many prominent members in the January 6th riot, began to disbelieve and abandon the conspiracies of the group. However, as this news story shows, some Q-Anon supporters are die-hard adherents and will never abandon their conspiracy theories, and some, like York’s supporters, are being recruited by other extreme groups. Sadly, as York shows, sometimes a riot is a rehearsal for another riot. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III, York finally amasses an army and challenges the Lancastrians in all-out war. Hopefully, the US government will hunt down and arrest these violent insurrectionists before they have the chance to do the same.

Example 3: Sir Thomas More

In the unfinished play “Sir Thomas More, a racist mob again attempts to attack London. This time they have no political pretenses; they want to lynch immigrants who they believe are taking English jobs. As I said in my “Who Would Shakespeare Vote For?” post, More’s speech is a perfect explanation of why this behavior cheapens and denigrated a country’s image, and weakens its ability to command respect from the rest of the world. Last time I posted a video of Sir Ian McKellen speaking this speech, but this time.. well just watch: