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Spells, Potions, and Poisons in the Work of William Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s dramas were steeped in a vast knowledge of botany and herbal medicine. The hidden meanings continue to fascinate.

Potions, poisons and spells are fundamental to the work of William Shakespeare. So much so that he used to enhance the meaning of drama (as in the “discourse of unreason” of Ophelia) to precipitate a plot (Hamlet) or for ending one (Romeo and Juliet). All mentions of herbs and plants reflect the bard’s vast medical knowledge and, of course, also represent the botanical concepts of the 16th and 17th centuries, enviable even from today’s perspective. Such is the botanical sophistication of Shakespeare that in his work, dialogues reflect the duality of the properties of plants and even metaphysical attributes that depend on the time when plants are collected.


In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence (the monk who prepared the concoction) points out that in the flower sleeps both a medicine and a poison; both are of the same origin, as they are in the human soul. In Macbeth, the witches announce aloud the “dark ingredients” in their famous incantation, which includes a “root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark,” emphasizing the belief that plants harvested in the dark, in the absence of moonlight – acquire evil powers.

All of this knowledge of the agencies of herbalism and botany came from herbals, books containing detailed information about the wealth of medicinal plants and herbs of Hippocrates, Theophrastus and Dioscorides, Pliny, Galen and Avicenna, as well as from contemporary folklore, and were available to all English readers. Because of the great epidemics of the Elizabethan era and the seemingly incurable diseases, it was essentially a requirement for all people, for their own safety, to bear as much medical knowledge as they could. A great article on Ophelia’s herbal holds that in the decades prior to the writing of Hamlet least nine herbals were published. These included descriptions of the “powers” and medicinal properties of every plant known at the time.

The same article holds that Ophelia’s famous Garland Speech is more full of meaning than is readily evident. Her litany of plants and herbs, including rosemary, fennel, rue and violets, make allusions also to fertility and the interruption of a pregnancy. Her words have innumerable layers of meaning though most of us are left in the dark.

Meghan Petersen, librarian and archivist of the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire, curated an extraordinary exhibition on the extensive and symbolic pharmacopoeia in the work of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Potions is an accessible introduction to both the deeper meanings in the works and the history of herbalism. “Shakespeare took dramatic advantage of the natural world and used herbs not only for twists in plot, but for characters’ names.” Recall that Titania, queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has four elves named after home remedies: “Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth.”

Reading Shakespeare in the light of all of this information opens an entire new universe to those who already thrive on Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The exhibition Shakespeare’s Potions is on display until June 26, 2016 at the Currier Museum of Art.


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