Hebenon (or hebona) is a botanical substance described in William Shakespeare's tragic play Hamlet. The identity and nature of the poison has been a source of speculation for centuries.

Possible candidates for hebenon

Shakespeare's use

Hebenon is the agent of death in Hamlet's father's murder, it sets in motion the events of the play. It is spelled hebona in the Quartos and hebenon in the Folios. This is the only mention of hebenon/hebona in any of Shakespeare's plays.

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon 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;
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.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand,
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:
-Ghost (King Hamlet, Hamlet's Father) spoken to Hamlet
[Act I, scene 5]

Identity of the poison

Writers from Shakespeare's time to the present have speculated about the identity of hebenon.

It may be different from hemlock, as hemlock is explicitly mentioned in several other writings of his (including King Lear, Macbeth and Henry V). In favor of it being yew are the familiarity of yew as a poison and the similarity in symptoms. Edmund Spenser wrote of "the deadly heben bow"[1] ("heben" being a word for ebony, from Latin hebenus). In favor of ebony (specifically, guaiac) is the fact that ebony was sometimes written with an h, but arguing against it is the low toxicity of guaiac.[2] In favour of henbane is its toxic nature and the possible origin of hebenon as metathesis from henbane.[3] Other authors question whether there is sufficient evidence to resolve the issue, or even whether Shakespeare's attention to botany and pharmacology was sufficient to say he meant a specific plant.[4]

Hebenon is a poison used to kill a pope and other world leaders in the thriller The Tao Deception by John M Green.


  1. Seymour, Mirinda (2000, May 20). "Country & Garden: Herbs - no 22: Henbane", The Independent. ProQuest document ID 311652931
  2. John George Robertson; G.C. Moore Smith; Charles Jasper Sisson (1920). The Modern Language Review: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Study of Medieval and Modern Literature and Philology, Volume 15. Modern Humanities Research Association, U of Cambridge Press (hardcover reprint, Repressed Publishing LLC, 2012; paperback reprint, U of Michigan Press, 1905). pp. 304–306. ASIN B007IP0BS6.
  3. Georgieff, Dimitar (11 August 2018). "Shakespeare's hapax for the plant hebenon in the play Hamlet" via ResearchGate. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. Anatoly Liberman; J. Lawrence Mitchell (2008). An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. U of Minnesota Press. pp. 110–111. ISBN 978-0-8166-5272-3.

Further reading

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