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The Poisons, Potions, and Charms of Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare Potion
John Gerard, Robert Davies, Thomas Johnson, Robert Priest, John Payne, and Rembert Dodoens, ‘The herball or Generall historie of plantes’ (London, 1633), printed by Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers (courtesy Currier Museum of Art Library and Archives)

Potions, poisons, and symbolic herbs are frequent plot devices in the plays of William Shakespeare, and reflect the medical knowledge of his time. Herbals recorded the plant-based concoctions, and through these rare books we can connect his references to remedies of the 16th and 17th century, whether the potent sleeping draught consumed by Juliet, or the rosemary “for remembrance” perfuming Ophelia’s bouquet.

Engraving by W. Byrne after Edward Edwards of the three witches of Macbeth concoting a potion in their cauldron (1773) (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Engraving by W. Byrne after Edward Edwards of the three witches of Macbeth concocting a potion in their cauldron (1773) (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

“Input from the emerging professions of physicians and ‘barber surgeons’ coexisted with folk medicine, which was familiar to Shakespeare and his contemporaries,” Meghan Petersen, a librarian and archivist at the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire, explained to Hyperallergic. “Women were expected to plant and tend their own gardens complete with herbs to address basic healthcare needs of the household. Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the basic qualities of many of the plants he referenced but certainly, as evidenced by his writing, he employed these plants and herbs in specifically effective and atmospheric ways.”

Petersen curated Shakespeare’s Potions, on view at the Currier Museum of Art, which pairs historic herbals from its library with film stills, showing two ways of visualizing the potions. The small show joins a horde of Shakespearean happenings around the world this year — marking 400 year since his death — from the display of his only surviving handwritten manuscript, to a digital recreation of the 18th-century Shakespeare Gallery. The Currier Museum of Art is also hosting a rare First Folio, starting April 9.

Petersen saw potions as an accessible introduction to both a deeper meaning in the plays and the history of herbals. “As it turns out, many of the volumes in our collection are some of the most significant English herbals published during the time Shakespeare lived,” she stated. “Shakespeare took dramatic advantage of the natural world and used herbs not only for twists in plot, but for characters’ names.”

Arthur Rackham's illustration of Titania asleep in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1909) (via Wikimedia)
Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Titania asleep in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1909) (via Wikimedia)

Titania, the fairy queen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has four followers named for household remedy ingredients: Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth. Oberon also sees Titania sleeping on a “bank where the wild thyme blows, / Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, / Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.” The aromatic language precedes Oberon placing a love potion in her eyes. Petersen noted that while herbals relayed cures, they additionally included herbs “for provoking lust,” such as sea holly, mustard, and peas.

Shakespeare’s Potions also explores perhaps the most famous of the Bard’s brews: the witches’ cauldron of Macbeth. The sorceresses announce aloud their dark ingredients for this “charm of powerful trouble”: “In the cauldron boil and bake; / Eye of newt and toe of frog [….] / Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf / Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf / Of the ravined salt-sea shark, / Root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark.”

Shakespeare Potion
John Gerard, Robert Davies, Thomas Johnson, Robert Priest, John Payne, and Rembert Dodoens, ‘The herball or Generall historie of plantes’ (London, 1633), printed by Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers (courtesy Currier Museum of Art Library and Archives)

While some of the components are outlandish, hemlock was a poison well-known in herbals, the “digged i’th’ dark” emphasizing, as Petersen stated, “the belief that plants harvested in the dark — without the light of the moon — took on evil and villainous powers.” The toxic plant also appears in Hamlet with this emphasis: “Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected.”

Beyond just showing the context of these herbs, Shakespeare’s Potions also aims to connect the worlds of the plays to everyday life in the Elizabethan era, when knowledge of natural remedies and belief in their power was recognized across classes.

“Some of these books are dirty, they have bits and pieces of biological matter in them,” Petersen said. “There are drawings of leaves and stems tucked inside and annotations and marginalia on the pages themselves. These books were used and as physical objects, they carry visible signs of human interaction.”

A depiction of Romeo buying a poison from an apothecary (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
A depiction of Romeo buying a poison from an apothecary (via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia)
Shakespeare's Potions
John Gerard, Robert Davies, Thomas Johnson, Robert Priest, John Payne, and Rembert Dodoens, ‘The herball or Generall historie of plantes’ (London, 1633), printed by Adam Islip Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers (courtesy Currier Museum of Art Library and Archives)

Shakespeare’s Potions continues at the Currier Museum of Art (150 Ash Street, Manchester, New Hampshire) through June 26 . 

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