The Natural History of Shakespeare: botanical sophistication is at a level near that of the herbalists of the time
Reading through the Open Library recently, I stumbled across and read the following book which reminded me a bit of this post:
- Slater, E. (1877). Natural history of Shakespeare being selection of flowers, fruits, and animals arranged by Bessie Mayou. Published 1877 by E. Slater in Manchester .
E. Slater, according to the title page, was bookseller and publisher to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, who in 1877 was Edward Albert, Queen Victoria’s son and later King Edward VII. So there you have it. The book itself deals with Shakespeare references to all things natural and for the purposes of this post, all things plant.
Many of the preliminary chapters deal with the expected roses, lilies, and marigolds of the Shakespeare world and their romantic metaphoric structure (and downright snarky disillusionment with love):
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. - Sonnet XCIV.
The Book is arranged in groups of Flowers, Wild Flowers, Weeds, Trees, Fruits, Nuts, Vegetables, Herbs, and Medicines. One of my particular favorites is referring to garlic:
And, most dear actors, eat no onions, Nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath- Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act iv. Scene 2.
However, it is Shakespeare’s remarkable knowledge of medicinal plants that has driven a lot of academic research. Several resources I list at the end of this post analyzing Shakespeare’s remarkable medicinal ability, but for now we can see evidence that this knowledge of the plant world is infused throughout his work. References to ginger, mace, saffron, cloves, mint, and more lace his work and not always for their aesthetic accompaniment or for the purposes of alliteration. They were often used as a medicinal plot device to install urgency into the plot. And they were a good excuse for Shakespeare to show off the breadth of his botanical knowledge. According to Edward Tabor, “Shakespeare’s botanical sophistication is at a level near that of the herbalists of the time” ((Tabor, 1970) as made evident by this passage from Romeo and Juliet where Shakespeare describes the duality of plant properties:
Friar Laurence. Many for many virtues excellent,
None but for some, and yet all different.
Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities.
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime’s by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power.
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
(Romeo and Juliet, II.iii.13-26)
So, a few quotes from Shakespeare and accompanying specimens followed by additional resources for you to peruse this new week.
Macbeth, What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative
drug, Would scour these English hence? -Macbeth, Act v. Scene 3.
Senna alexandrina Mill. act as purgatives and are similar to aloe and rhubarb in having as active ingredients anthraquinone derivatives and their glucosides. The latter are called sennosides or senna glycosides. Senna alexandrina is used in modern medicine as a laxative; especially useful in alleviating constipation.
Common names: English: senna; Aden senna; Alexandrian senna; Nubian senna.French: séné; séné vrai (true senna). West African: MALI TAMACHEK aghe-agher (JMD) egerger (JMD)NIGER ARABIC (Niger) senna jebeli (Aub.) senna makha from Makha: Mecca (Aub.) NIGERIA ARABIC-SHUWA senna jebeli (JMD) senna mekka = Mecca senna (JMD) HAUSA filáskón mákà from Maka: Mecca (JMD;)
Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow’dst yesterday.
Othello, Act iii. Scene 3
Papaver somniferum- Herbs or rarely shrubs or even trees, with white, yellow or orange latex. Leaves alternate or rarely whorled, without stipules. Flowers usually solitary and rather large, bisexual, regular. Sepals 2–3(–4), imbricate, free or united, usually soon falling. Petals 4–6(–12), rarely absent, imbricate, arranged in 1–2(–3) whorls. Stamens usually numerous, free; anthers 2-celled with longitudinal dehiscence. Ovary superior, usually 1-celled; ovules usually numerous on parietal placentas; style present or absent; stigmas usually forming a disc-shaped, lobed structure. Fruit usually a capsule dehiscing by valves or pores. Seeds small, numerous, with abundant endosperm.
Ancient Egyptian doctors would have their patients eat seeds from a poppy to relieve pain as poppy seeds were later revealed to contain both morphine and codeine.
Falstaff. … for though the camomile, the
more it is trodden the faster it grows, yet youth, the
more it is wasted the sooner it wears.
King Henry IV., Part I. Act ii. Scene 4.
Often used in herbal medicine for a sore stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, and as a gentle sleep aid. Also a mild anti-inflammatory and bactericidal. One of the active ingredients of the essential oil from chamomile is the terpene bisabolol. Bisabolol is used to treat skin conditions, has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties and has some positive effect when used to treat leukemia and cancer. Chamomile may also have modest effect on anxiety disorders. All of this as well as making you sleepy before bedtime.
The book itself is well worth a look so I encourage you to read it at Open Library, download it as a PDF or send it to your Kindle. If you are interested in learning more about Shakespeare’s uncanny grasp on plants, medicine, and nutrition, be sure to give the following a read:
- On Shakespeare, medicine and modern nutrition
- What’s up, Doc, or should I ask Shakespeare? The Bard’s uncanny grasp of what ails us puts much of modern medicine to shame.
- Shakespeare and Medicine: The Bard was well versed in Human Afflictions and their Treatments
- Warren, W. (1944). The Biology in Shakespeare. Bios, 15(1): 21-36.
- Tabor, E. (1970). Plant Poisons in Shakespeare. Economic Botany, 24(1): 81-94