Shakespeare’s herbal lore

In his plays and poems, Shakespeare shows a distinct familiarity with wildflowers and cultivated plants. Their medicinal properties apart, he also senses their psychological effects. But where did he acquire that knowledge?

In keeping with many other facets of his life, we do not know how Shakespeare learnt what he knew. At that time there were no comprehensive books on the history of medicine which, in England, was still in its infancy. Yet Shakespeare’s knowledge seems to go far beyond the folklore and traditional medicine he would have picked up in a country upbringing. As Caroline Spurgeon (1869-1942) – the first female University professor in London, the second in England – noted in her acclaimed book Shakespeare’s Imagery (1952):

“A study of Shakespeare’s images of sickness and medicine shows that he had throughout his life a distinct interest in the treatment of disease and the action of medicine on the body… His sensitive understanding of the influence of mind on body is what, however, puts him nearest modern expert opinion.”

Why, for example, is rosemary related to memory? “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5). Rosemary, with its blue, pink or white flowers, has both culinary and decorative uses. It is tempting to imagine the young Shakespeare being taught such herbal folklore at his mother’s knee.

Chamomile is a sweet, hardy perennial used in potpourri and scented pillows. Its tiny daisy-like flowers can be infused for tea. “Though the chamomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted the sooner it wears” (King Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, Scene 4).

Lavender is well known for its deeply fragrant scent and bluish purple spiky flowers on silver or grey-green foliage. It is a popular culinary and decorative herb. Marjoram is a shrubby plant with tiny white or purple flowers and spicy-scented leaves. Mint has multitudinous culinary uses and comes in several varieties. Winter savory has tiny pinkish white flowers with peppery leaves and is used in many bean dishes. “Here’s flowers for you; hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram” (The Winter’s Tale, Act IV, Scene 4).

There are many other references. “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills” (Othello, Act I, Scene 3). “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 1).

In all probability, Shakespeare learnt from many sources, including his son-in-law, the physician John Hall (1575-1635). Around 1600, Hall established himself in Stratford as a doctor, which meant a professional, clinical herbalist. At the age of 32, Hall married Susanna, the eldest of Shakespeare’s two daughters. Shakespeare and Hall lived close by, so it is reasonable to assume that they often spoke of professional and other matters.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s Pericles was written during his last great creative phase at the beginning of the 1600s and around the time that Hall became part of Shakespeare’s family. Pericles includes a doctor character, Cerimon, who at one point (Act III, Scene 2) says:

“’Tis known I ever
Have studied physic, through which secret art,
By turning o’er authorities, I have
Together with my practice, made familiar
To me and to my aid the blest infusions
That dwells in vegetives, in metals, stones;
And I can speak of the disturbances
That Nature works, and of her cures…”

This may be Shakespeare speaking, but it sounds like something John Hall might have said, holding “as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” We shall never know.

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