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Leaving poisonous plants behind for the time being, we look instead at the death of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play by venomous snake bite – the most likely culprit being the Egyptian Cobra (Naje haje). Snake venom contains a cocktail of toxic proteins and peptides that target the strongholds we need to stay alive – cells, nerves and blood. We will explore how the toxins are designed to stun, numb or kill the snake’s prey. Cleopatra’s death takes just a few lines of dialogue, which as we will discover, is much faster than the 1–2 h it usually takes for a fatal cobra envenomation. She also describes the bite as “as sweet as balm”, slightly at odds with the agonising pain other victims report. There are also some holes in the eyewitness accounts of her death, which have led to various conspiracy theories about her real cause of death over the centuries. Toxicologists tend to encounter snake bite envenomation in countries where venomous snakes are common, but there are dangerous native snakes in the UK, and of course even deadlier exotic ones in zoos and private collections.

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