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Juliet’s apparent death in Romeo & Juliet is brought on by a potion she is given by a Friar, with the promise that she will look convincingly lifeless for 42 h after drinking it. Shakespeare does not tell us what’s in the potion, but the herbal reference books of the time describe deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna, as the most likely culprit, as it can bring on a “dead sleep”. We will see that the other characteristic effects of deadly nightshade including paralysed nerve endings, racing heart, flushed face, confusion and agitation do not feature in the play, but can be seen in other fictional poisonings such as in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Deadly nightshade contains atropine, a useful pupil-dilating drug, which is still used (in a pure form in eye drops) today. The berries of the plant look particularly juicy and inviting, and so accidental poisoning is the most likely reason a forensic toxicologist would encounter it.

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