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