Aconite and mandrake: Crypto-pharmacological botanicals in Shakespeare

The difference between remedy and poison is the level of intent, and the difference between the screaming mandrake of the gallows and the soporific, hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids of the mandragora officinarum is the murky navigation of the intersection of folklore and pharmacology. In a period in which medical practices largely depended on the Galenic humoral system, or the belief that the human body was characterised and regulated by four temperaments (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy), and where circulating pharmacopeias’ treatment and use of specific botanicals drew from both science and superstition in varying amounts, the work of William Shakespeare participated in and contributed to a long tradition of crypto-pharmacology. Crypto-pharmacology here refers to those substances that oscillate between medicine and myth, those forbidden botanicals like wolfsbane that skirt the dangerous edge between Thessalian witchcraft and severe aconite poisoning. Don’t try these remedies at home, kids, no matter how reputable Shakespeare’s local apothecary might seem.

A large portion of early modern pharmacology and medical advice in England drew from Arabic translations of Classical Graeco-Roman pharmacopeias, or those medical texts like Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica and Galen’s numerous works on humoral and pharmacological methodologies, most of which centred on the belief that “health and illness were ‘organic’ or constitutional in the sense of deriving from inner processes, rather than invasive external pathogens” (Curth 4). De Materia Medica, in particular, was rich with crypto-pharmacological botanicals that blurred the boundaries between esotericism and secularism, infusing legend into local herb lore that, to the early modern medical practitioner, was to be trusted with caution. As such, there was a great interest in the standardisation of Classical knowledge and a flurry of production and circulation of vernacular medical texts that “specifically arose from the demand that the tradition of plant lore be re-examined, and that the works of Pliny and Dioscorides be separated from the accumulated encrustation of centuries of myth and folklore” (Elliot 24). John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) was one such text. Gerard’s herbal, a massive undertaking which saw to the inclusion of 1,800 woodcut block illustrations of botanicals and Gerard’s uniquely lyrical prose in the description of the plants included, is widely understood by scholars of herbals to have been a botanical reference for Shakespeare, due in part to its availability as an English text and its mass circulation within and popularisation by both lay and learned English circles (Willes 15-16).

Shakespeare’s work is rife with botanical references of both mythical, foreign, and regional origin, ranging from the anemone that sprouts from Adonis’ blood in Venus and Adonis, to the crown imperial that Perdita in The Winter’s Tale includes in her list of native and foreign flowers and which was first introduced to Europe in 1580 from the Middle East, to the humble rock samphire that sprawls on the cliffs of the English coast that Edgar calls upon in King Lear. It is his inclusion of crypto-pharmacological botanicals, however, that is especially intriguing, and which best reflects Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the intersection between the real and artifice, folk legend and stark political reality, poison and remedy, and how botanicals correspond to these in-between spaces accordingly.

More often than not, these botanicals appear in Shakespeare’s favourite trope of the narcotic soporific drink, a potion whose effects of either instant sleep or immediate death is contingent on the level of intent and the knowledge of the pharmaceuticals that go into it. In the apothecary of Act 5 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, a desperate, grief-stricken Romeo demands some means by which he can commit suicide following the news of Juliet’s (false) death:

Let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead,
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

(Shakespeare 59-65)

Margaret Willes identifies the poison as containing aconitum napellus, or wolfsbane, an incredibly poisonous hardy perennial belonging to the aconite family, native and endemic to central and western Europe, and whose blue or purple cowl-shaped florets lend its other common name: monkshood. While widely utilised in traditional Chinese herbal medicine and homeopathy as a treatment for rheumatism, fractures, bruises, and arthritis, without proper preparation aconite plays a very dangerous betting game. Aconite contains fast-acting Aconitum alkaloids known as cardiotoxins or neurotoxins, which, upon ingestion of up to 2 mg the plant’s roots or tubers or 5 mL of an aconite tincture, cause severe neurological, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal complications and, if untreated, a quick death (Chan 281). The rapidity with which death follows a lethal dose of aconite is echoed in Romeo’s reference to gunpowder in “hasty powder fired,” and which Henry IV in Henry IV Part Two echoes in comparing aconite to “rash gunpowder” (4.3.48).

Mythologically, in Homer’s Iliad and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite was believed to have flowered from the spittle of the three-headed hound Cerberus. The plant was also sacred to Hecate, a Greek goddess whose association with witchcraft translates into the belief that aconite, as well as atropa belladonna (commonly known as deadly nightshade), was used in hallucinogenic flying ointments by Thessalian witches. These ointments, which may be understood as a form of crypto-pharmacology in their own right, were thought to either allow witches the ability of physical flight or to experience the hallucination of spiritual flight, the latter largely engendered by the psychoactive properties of the botanicals included in these ointments as they are absorbed through the skin (Müller 622). One of aconite’s many neurological effects includes numbness and paraesthesia, or the prickling or tingling of the skin, and the development of tachycardia, or an irregular heartbeat, believed to have assisted in the tangibility of the hallucinatory experience. As with most crypto-pharmacological botanicals, if these ointments were made with too high a quantity of aconite or other psychoactive or toxic botanicals, their application, even topically to the skin, would have had fatal consequences.

Another fascinating crypto-pharmacological botanical Shakespeare favours is mandragora officinarum, appearing in Anthony and Cleopatra (Act 1, Scene 5), Romeo and Juliet (Act 4, Scene 3), Henry VI Part Two (Act 1 Scene 2; Act 3, Scene 2), Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 3), and Othello (Act 3, Scene 3). The mandrake that Shakespeare refers to would probably be the Mediterranean mandrake rather than the English mandrake, the latter known as Bryonia dioica or white bryony, as it is the Mediterranean mandrake to which Dioscorides and Gerard refer and to which the mandrake’s hallucinogenic, soporific qualities are attributed (Carter 146). The mandrake is nonetheless a perennial herbaceous plant whose variable but characteristically forked root system often resembles a human figure. This anthropomorphised form contributed to a complex esoteric belief system that came to be attached to the mandrake by Classical Graeco-Roman and, to a certain extent, early modern European physicians and folk healers alike. Prior to taking a sleeping draught of atropa belladonna, Juliet proclaims her fear of being encased in the Capulet family tomb and hearing the shrieks of mandrakes: “What with loathsome smells / And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth / That living mortals, hearing them, run mad” (Shakespeare 4.3.46-48). Suffolk, similarly, curses his enemies in Henry VI Part Two: “Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan” (3.2.312). Both Juliet and Suffolk refer to the myth surrounding the mandrake that, upon being unearthed, its scream would induce either death or madness. Dioscorides suggested using a dog to uproot the mandrake so that the dog would fall victim to the plant’s screams rather than the cultivator, allowing for the root to be safely harvested. The mandrake was also thought to grow beneath the gallows and to bloom from the semen, urine, or blood of the hanged man, coining its association as “little gallows man” in vernacular German (Carter 146; Müller 622). Gerard scornfully rebukes these mythological associations in his attempt to secularise the mandrake’s esoteric past, stating that “‘[t]here have been many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of old wives or some runnagate surgeons or phisickmongers’” (qtd. in Willes 114) and that he had “‘safely planted and replanted many mandrakes’” (qtd. in Chidiac et al. 1437).

As a crypto-pharmacological botanical, the mandrake was primarily used as a surgical anaesthetic, first described in De Materia Medica where Dioscorides recommended boiling the root in wine and administering it to patients. It was also a key component in sleeping draughts due to its soporific effects, of which both Othello and Cleopatra call for in times of emotional distress. Thirdly, it was often taken advantage of for its psychoactive properties. The root, fruit, and leaves contain high concentrations of solanum alkaloids and tropane alkaloids that are found in the Solanum, or nightshade, family (to which mandragora officinarum belongs), and whose anticholinergic (related to the inhibition of the parasympathetic nerve impulses) and hallucinogenic properties can cause severe nausea, blurred vision, headaches, tachycardia, delirium, and can even induce a coma upon ingestion if not prepared accurately or if consumed in large doses (Tsiligianni et al.). Like aconite, mandragora was often believed to be used in flying ointments by witches and was at once venerated and vilified for its position as a potent hallucinogenic and hypnotic substance, particularly as a botanical already well-established within the fear-based realm of folk superstition that is now additionally a tool in the hands of those who were perceived to worship the Devil. Damned for its perceived uncanniness, the mandrake lingers in an unintentionally cursed history.

Much like his treatment of the liminality of the theatre, Shakespeare’s approach to and inclusion of crypto-pharmacological botanicals playfully engages with that uncertain space that intersects secular medicine and folklore and which was beginning to be discussed and interrogated in early modern England. Toeing the line between poison and remedy, aconite and mandragora are two of many incredibly complex, and irrevocably dangerous, pharmaceuticals that Shakespeare’s characters and the playwright himself engage with, revealing an immensely broad awareness of and very clever treatments of both folk herb lore and developing pharmacology.

Aiden is an English Honours (Literature) and art history minor student at UBC. A disgruntled horror writer and local cryptid, they are frequently found arguing about paranormal podcasts in darkened cafés and frightening baristas with their high tolerance for caffeine and regret. Can and will get into a fist fight with Shakespeare in the presumed afterlife.

Works Cited

Carter, Anthony John. “Myths and mandrakes.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol 96, March 2003, pp. 144-47.

Chan, Thomas Y K. “Aconite poisoning.” Clinical Toxicology, vol. 47, no. 4, 2009, pp. 279-85, DOI: 10.1080/15563650902904407. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

Chidiac, Elie J, et al. “Mandragora: Anaesthetic of the Ancients.” Anaesthesia and Analgesia, vol. 115, no. 6, December 2012, pp. 1437-41. DOI: 10.1213/ANE.0b013e318259ee4d. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

Curth, Louise Hill. “Introduction: Perspectives on the Evolution of the Retailing of Pharmaceuticals.” From Physick to Pharmacology: Five Hundred Years of British Drug Retailing, edited by Louise Hill Curth, Routledge, 2006, pp. 1-11.

Elliott, Brent. “The world of the Renaissance herbal.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, February 2011, pp. 24-41. JSTOR, Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

Greenblatt, Stephen, et al., editors. The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed., New York: Norton, 2016.

Müller, Jurgen Leo. “Love Potions and the Ointment of Witches: Historical Aspects of the Nightshade Alkaloids.” Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology, vol. 36, no. 6, 1998, pp. 617-27. DOI: 10.3109/15563659809028060. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

Tsiligianni, Ionna G, et al. “A two cases clinical report of mandragora poisoning in primary care in Crete, Greece: two case report.” Case Journal, vol 2, no. 9331, 2009. DOI: 10.1186/1757-1626-2-9331. Accessed 9 Apr. 2019.

Willes, Margaret. A Shakespearean Botanical. Bodleian Library, 2015.


Illustration Aconitum Napellus via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Naples Dioscorides Mandrake via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Tacuinum Sanitatis Mandrake Dog via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

One Comment

  • Ryan (thee) Mod Roussel

    Very nice essay, Aiden. As the heir to a trans-generational obsession with plants and literature, I can count you as a kindred spirit. I have an essay my grandmother wrote on the subject of Shakespeare’s reliance on Gerard’s Herball for the meaning of Ophelia’s bouquet and garland in Hamlet. It touches on the mythobotany of plants in several other works in the Bard’s corpus, as well. I have a PDF of the typescript that I had scanned, after reading your work. I would like to share it with you, if you have the time. Simply shoot me an email, and I can send you the PDF.

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