71 pages 2 hours read

Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic and Old Lace

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1941

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Reading Context

Use these questions or activities to help gauge students’ familiarity with and spark their interest in the context of the work, giving them an entry point into the text itself.

Short Answer

1. What has arsenic been used for? Why was arsenic historically used in favor of other poisons? What was Tofana’s poison used for? How was arsenic used in beauty treatments? 

Teaching Suggestion: Arsenic and Old Lace features two elderly women who murder their victims with a concoction of poison in elderberry wine. Depending on the ages and experience levels of your students, they may need some time to investigate these questions with online resources or to share their common knowledge in small groups.  

  • The National Library of Medicine mentions some historical, literary, and folkloric connections to arsenic in this short article.

2. Consider what you know about institutionalization in the early 1900s. What images and stereotypes come to mind? What methods were used to cure patients in hospitals established to treat mental health conditions? 

Teaching Suggestion: Teddy, the elderly sisters, and Jonathan are all suspected of having mental health conditions based on their actions. It may be beneficial to discuss the bias against mental health conditions and the insensitivity toward these conditions evident in the play.