Reaching Lifelong Goals

Nontraditional Grad Student's Journey in Public History

Archive for May, 2010

As an effort to catch up with posting all of my research papers for my Shakespeare English Literature class, here is one more for you today.   While studying Mid Summer Nights Dream, I noticed the use of botanical references to flowers and their medicinal properties.   This led to a wonderful research journey into Shakespeare’s early life in rural England and his exposure to flora and fauna.   I found references to many different flowers and animals throughout his works.   In MSND, (Shakespeare speak for the play)  there is reference to “Love in Idleness” flowers having magical properties.   This flower is what we consider as a Viola now, but as you can see in the research paper, many other names have been associated with this plant.   This was another Non Traditional Student effort, going way out of the box for a topic.   Truly a unique paper in the class, and it received an A+ grade.  I hope you enjoy it.

Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, and maidens call it “Love in Idleness”     (Oberon, Mid Summers Night Dream, Act II, Scene 1)

It is evident that William Shakespeare was fluent in the folklore and history of the flora and fauna of his homeland.   You can find references to different species of plants and their related superstitions and histories in all of his published works.   Many Shakespearean scholars have devoted entire works to his botanical and folklore references.   Here we will deal with only one species, Heartsease (Viola tricolor) otherwise known as the Love in Idleness Pansy.  A common wild flower of the day, it was well-known to the Elizabethan herbalists.

Research of the name “love in Idleness” yields a treasure trove of information based on science as well as folklore.   M. Grieve, in The Modern Herbal, lists some of the many names this plant has been known as over the past 400 years: Wild Pansy, Love-Lies-Bleeding, Love-in-Idleness, Live-in-Idleness, Loving Idol, Love Idol, Cull Me, Cuddle Me, Call-me-to-you, Jackjump-up-and-kiss-me, Meet-me-in-the-Entry, Kiss-her-in-the-Buttery, Three-Faces-under-a-Hood, Kit-run-in-the-Fields, Pink-o’-the-Eye, Kit-run-about, Stepmother, Herb Trinitatis, Herb Constancy, Pink-eyed-John, Bouncing Bet, Flower o’luce, Bird’s Eye and Bullweed.[i] Many of these synonyms come from the plant being introduced into the new world by English settlers in the early 17th century.     This wild flower is common all over the British Isles and was long associated with love potions or love philtres for casting spells over people.     Love in Idleness is also mentioned by Shakespeare in the Taming of the Shrew, where in Act I, Scene I, Luciento claims he feels the effects of Love in Idleness, alluding to its qualities to stimulate love.  The theme of “love at first sight” is associated with this flower again in this later play.

Shakespeare was probably aware of one of the well-known herbalists of the period, John Gerard (1545-1612).

In his The Herbal or Generall  Historie of Plantes [ii],  which was published in 1596, he listed the medicinal properties of many of the plants and herbs known at the time.   Elizabethan herbalists relied on a number of herbs and flowers to cure all kinds of ailments and conditions.   There was a strong relationship between physicians and herbalists in Elizabethan England.    Another famous herbalist, Nicholas Culpepper published The Complete Herbal in 1653.     He specifically lists the qualities of the Heartsease (Love in Idleness).   “Government and virtues: The herb is really saturnine, something cold, viscous, and slimy. A strong decoction of the herbs and flowers (if you will, you may make it into syrup) is an excellent cure for the French pox, the herb being a gallant antivenereal: and that antivenereals are the best cure for that disease, far better and safer than to torment them with the flux, divers foreign physicians have confessed. The spirit of it is excellently good for the convulsions in children, as also for the falling sickness, and a gallant remedy for the inflammation of the lungs and breasts, pleurisy, scabs, itch, &c. It is under the celestial sign Cancer.” [iii] As an aside, it was entertaining to note the use of Heartsease for “an excellent cure of the French Pox”, a rather pointed English term for Syphilis.

In his book, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, Rev. T. F. Dyer states: “Midsummer Eve appears to have been regarded as a period when the imagination ran riot, and many a curious superstition was associated with this season.  Thus people gathered on this night the rose, St. John’s Wort, vervian, trefoil and rue, all of which were supposed to have magical properties.” [iv] Shakespeare could not have selected a better night to set his mystical and comedic characters in.    Folk-lore had a major influence on the plot of the story.

Herbal medicine was also strongly linked with astrology and was an art taken up by many herbalists.  Culpepper made special note of the astrological signs that ruled each species of plant.   This was to insure that the plants could be harvested at their peak of potency.    This concept of astrology leads to Shakespeare’s folklore reference to midsummer’s eve, or the summer solstice.

The juices of the Love in Idleness flower alone were all that was needed for the desired effect in the play.  However, modern-day scientists feel that the love potion was more of a metaphor than an effective aphrodisiac.  Dr Charles Sell, the head of organic chemistry at Quest and a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Wild pansies were noted in herbal folklore medicine. It was attributed with many properties but falling in love was probably the invention of Shakespeare.” [v] Dr Sell described the potion as having “a nice fragrance”, but said it had not triggered any amorous behavior.

Shakespeare uses references to many species of plants throughout his works.   His rural upbringing led to an advanced knowledge of the plants used in herbal medicine of the era.  He made more than one reference to the pansy, “Love in Idleness” in his plays.  What the significance of this particular plant was to him one can only ponder.

[i] M. Grieve, A modern Herbal, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Company,  1931,

[ii]Gerard, John, The Herbal or The General History of Plants, c. 1596, web,

[iii]Culpepper, Nicholas, The Complete Herbal, c.1653, web,

[iv] Rev. Dyer, T.F, Folk-Lore of Shakespeare, New York, Dover Pub,  1966, Reprinted from c. 1883

[v] Derbyshire,David, Midsummer Nights Love Potion Proves a Work of Fiction, London Telegraph,, 14 Feb 2002

Shakespeare’s Richard III and the Two Princes in the Tower

Posted by Redfokker On May - 29 - 2010

As a Non Traditional Student and a History Major, I have been enjoying my assignments for research papers in my Shakespeare series of classes.  I have been posting my papers on the Reaching Lifelong Goals blog as a archive online of my Non Trad journey.   I have created a special category on my blog to post these papers, and this is one of my first efforts that I had missed posting.   An interesting comparison to my latest works as I have been learning about how to present these papers in proper formats, citations and content.   So far, my instructor, Peter Jensen seems to like what I have to say as I have a perfect record of A+ papers over the past three terms in ENG201-203.   I post these papers for the fun of it, but if they provide any ideas for my fellow Non Traditional Students on their research papers, I am OK with it.  I’ll be posting a couple more that are missing from this category over the next few days.   Please feel free to comment or post any rebuttals you may have, I have a thick skin!   Thank you for your time.

The Two Princes in the Tower of London:  What Could Today’s Forensic Anthropology tell us About the Mystery?

The story of the two princes in the tower is one of the great mysteries of the English monarchy.   The historical background of the two princes and their fates closely follows Shakespeare’s portrayal in Richard III.   Shakespeare uses Sir James Tyrrel’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene 3 to illustrate the murders of Edward V and his brother Richard, 1st Duke of York, in great detail.   He further places guilt on Richard with him saying “Kind Tyrrell am I happy in thy news?”   Historical records do show that the princes were never seen again after the summer of 1483. Their fate remains unknown, and it is presumed that they either died or were killed there. There is no record of a funeral.

.   The remains of the two princes were left untouched from 1674 until being studied in 1933.   With the Permission of King George V, the bones were opened and studied.   This investigation, conducted by Drs. Wright and Tanner in 1933, was done under constraints that could have affected the accuracy of their findings. There is a possibility of bias on their part because they knew in advance the ages of Edward and Richard in 1483. Since 1933, there have been those who have made credible challenges to their findings.  Finally, even without the constraints, Wright and Tanner did not have the technology at their disposal to end speculation. They could not DNA-test the remains and thus end all arguments. Through the dental remains there appeared to be some kind of blood relation between the two skeletons, but this could not be proved. [2] At the time, the dental problems with the two skulls only linked them circumstantially to the written records.   A later archeological find 30 years later of another skeleton of the same period could have offered some comparisons.

In January of 1965, the London Museum announced that the remains of Anne Mowbray, the child wife of Richard, 1st Duke of York had been discovered.   Her skeletal remains were found by workers in a lead coffin.   The condition of the skull and teeth was very good, lending them to possible DNA testing at some point.    An observation from the Richard III Society website about the scientific information and its usefulness is noteworthy: “Further, scientific methods of dating bones have advanced much since 1933 and the differences in development between mediaeval and modern children may, in principle, be addressed because of the discovery in 1964 of the coffin and remains of Anne Mowbray, child wife of Richard of York, whose age and date of death are known. This gives a direct contemporary parallel by which to judge the age and development of the controversial skeletons.”[3]

This brings us to the question at hand. With the advances in forensic anthropology since the original investigation in 1933, will it be possible to identify the bones as belonging to Edward V and Richard 1st Duke of York?

Through the use of radio carbon dating of the bones, the age of the bones could only determined within a window of years.   There is a great deal of controversy around the accuracy of C-14 carbon dating[4].   The accuracy of this type of dating is not exact.  Radio Carbon dating of the bones through this method might not yield a definitive identification to the exact date in 1483.   It could however, show that the bones are from the correct general time period and not “leftovers” from a Roman burial centuries before.  Also, as noted above, there could be comparisons made with the remains of Anne Mowbray where the actual dates are known.

Perhaps the most promising new scientific tool that could be used is Mitochondrial DNA testing.   The science here is far more reliably accurate.   It was noted in the 1933 investigation that one of the skulls had teeth that viable DNA could be extracted from.   If this DNA could be tested against bloodlines existing today through a matriarchal connection, an accurate determination one way or the other could be made.   Also, the DNA from Anne Mowbray could also be utilized, as she was a cousin to the Princes.

The use of new scientific methods and forensics on the two skeletons might offer the cause of death.   The 1933 study made mention of blood stains around the mouth of the older skull, but no definitive findings could be made at that time.   Today’s forensic science and the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging could give us a more accurate picture of the damage to the skull.

King Richard III

Even if the two skeletons were identified as Henry V and his younger brother Richard 1st Duke of York, would this put an end to the controversy?   It only would solve one part of the mystery, identification of the remains.   Would this prove Richard III’s guilt or innocence?    I think not.   The battle between the current day “Ricardians” and the “Yorkists” seems to be one of the most heated debates in historical circles.   Until more definitive evidence about the motives and actions of Richard III can be found, I feel no resolution is possible.

However, at the present time all of this is moot, as the remains are not available for study.   Queen Elizabeth has not given her permission for the study of the Princes’ remains.   They remain in the urn in Westminster Abbey.   The last request for study was rejected by the queen in 2002.  For the use of the current forensic science, it would be necessary to have access to the remains.   Prince Charles, next in line to the throne, has indicated interest in reopening this study. Until he becomes King, he does not have any power in this matter.  Will this change open up opportunities for further study of the princes’ bones?   This is a scenario that only time will reveal.    I am often reminded that Winston Churchill was right, “history is written by the victor.”

[1] Bones in the Tower: A Discussion of Time, Place and Circumstance

Maurer, Helen The Ricardian Vol. 8, No. 111 December 1990


[3] To Prove a Villain, The real Richard III, Exhibition at the Royal National Theater, London, 1991

Racism in Othello, Was Shakespeare a Racist?

Posted by Redfokker On May - 24 - 2010

The second play that we studied this term in ENG203 Late Shakespeare was Othello.  My research into the topic of racism in Elizabethan England yielded a treasure of sources.   As a Non Traditional Student, I always place a high standard for my papers in this class.   The requirement was for a short 2 page essay about the play.   As per all of my other papers submitted, this one received another A+.   This has become somewhat of a series on this blog, so I decided to continue by posting my paper here.   I’m open to any critical comments from my readers.

The Racism of Othello – Historical Perspectives

When we look at the racial overtones of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice, one must recognize the historical context of Elizabethan England.  To truly evaluate the treatment of Othello as a “Moor”, his position in Venetian society, and his marriage to Desdemona, the play must be judged on the societal norms and current events that William Shakespeare had to draw from.

The English encounter with Africans began from about the mid-sixteenth century. Native West Africans had probably first appeared in London in 1554.  Certainly, as Martin Orkin points out in an article for The Shakespeare Quarterly, “by 1601 there were enough black men in London to prompt Elizabeth to express her discontent ‘at the great number of ‘Negars and blackamoors’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her highness and the King of Spain’ (Orkin).    Elizabethan adventurers John Hawkins, John Lok, and Martin Frobisher were among the first raiding African coastal villages, kidnapping inhabitants and bringing them back to England in the mid-1550s. Although initially a small population, these involuntary exiles were the forerunners of much larger numbers, who would eventually be enslaved in the Caribbean and the American colonies.   Blacks were a very visible minority in Shakespeare’s London.  Only recently have historians documented the proof of Africans in 17th century London.  Initially brought in as slaves or as “human curiosities,” some blacks soon assimilated themselves into Elizabethan life as laborers and domestic servants.   Author James Shultz noted; “We now have documented proof of the residences of black people, which must be reckoned into the colors of Shakespeare’s world, in a very literal sense. Shakespeare knew people of color. He walked through their neighborhoods every day” (Shultz).  This author goes on to propose that the “dark lady” of the Sonnets was a black prostitute that William Shakespeare formed a relationship with.   Although an almost plausible solution to the issue, too many other pieces to this puzzle do not fit.

Shakespeare most certainly had contact with Africans living in London, but was this interaction tempered by the prevailing prejudices of his English countrymen? English ethnocentrism fastened upon differences in color, religion, and style of life. Orkin has assembled material that shows that Englishmen saw Sub Saharan Africans as barbarous.  He includes an excerpt from Richard Eden’s account of John Lok’s voyages, published first in 1554-55 and reprinted in 1589.  “An account of the inhabitants of ‘coast of Guinea and the middye partes of Africa’…were in olde tyme called Etheiopes and Nigrite wich we nowe caule moores, morren or Negroes.  A people of beastly lyvynge, without a god, lawe, religion or common welth, and so scorched and vexed with the heate of the sonne, that in many places they curse it when it ryseth” (Orkin).  In the OED the meaning of the word “black” includes, before the sixteenth century and were subject to the prejudices of the day.   Othello, being a General and of higher status than other blacks in both Venetian and English societies is Shakespeare’s way of breaking down these stereotypes.

The racial slurs and insults by Iago, as he says “…an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” (O.I.1.88-89). Roderigo also makes racist comments referring to Othello as “the thick lips”(O.I.1.66).  There is racist sentiment within the play, but it is to a large degree it is confined to Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio.   The character of Othello does not lower himself to respond to these insults.   This highlighting of the injury of words by the “white” characters only strengthens Othello against the stereotypes of the day.  Looking at the character of Othello through the color prejudices of early 17th century England further shows how Shakespeare was very progressive for his time period.

Research yields volumes of works about racism in Othello.  Evaluating the theme of racism by 20th century thinking is valid only when the comparisons are tempered with an understanding of Elizabethan and Jacobean social norms.  Only then can one really see the true brilliance of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Tragedy of Othello, the Moore of Venice.

Works Cited

Orkin, Martin.” Othello and the “plain face” Of Racism” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Summer, 1987), pp. 166-188. 5 May 2010.web

Shultz, James.Shakespeare’s Colors: Race And Culture In Elizabethan England“. Old Dominion University’s Quest. January 2002, Volume 5 Issue 1.8 May 2010.web.

Bartels, Emily C. “Making more of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashioning of Race”. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 433-454. 8 May 2010.web

Bartels, Emily C. “Othello and Africa: Postcolonialism Reconsidered”. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 45-64. 8 May 2010.web

Neill, Michael. “Mulattos,” “Blacks,” and “Indian Moors”: Othello and Early Modern Constructions of Human Difference”. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter, 1998), pp. 361-374. 9 May 2010.web

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