Book review: A Shakespearean Botanical

READERS might wonder why Shakespeare would relate the pretty plant aconitum with ‘rash gunpowder’, as he does in Henry IV Part 2. 

A Shakespearean Botanical

Margaret Willes

Bodleian Library Publishing, €19.50

As Margaret Willes explains in this engaging addition to Shakespeare studies, aconites belong to the catalogue of vicious plant poisons, a fact not often advertised by those who enjoy the blue, helmet-shaped blossoms of monkshood in their gardens.

Call it wolfsbane and the danger is suggested; a listing in modern gardening manuals warns that ‘all parts of this plant are poisonous’. 

A writer whose botanical interests are supported by research which includes the cultural and political eruptions of Shakespeare’s England, Willes notes in this entry that the symptoms of aconite poisoning include, according to the herbalist John Gerard, the swelling of lips and tongue, the bulging of the eyes, stiffening of the thighs and loss of wits. 

That takes some of the romance out of Romeo and Juliet, given that Willes asserts that it is almost certainly wolfsbane that Romeo takes in his ‘dram of poison’.

In her selections and interpretations of Shakespeare’s often powerful use of botanical imagery in his plays and his two long poems (apart from some discussion in the introduction the Sonnets are avoided) Willes has compiled a book fat with interest and entertainment. Her style is precise but appreciative and her historical span.

There were, for example, a few more botanists and chemists about than John Gerard, although he would be the supreme authority for many years. 

With his own garden in Holborn, he was supervisor of the marvellous country house gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and of the garden at Burghley’s house in London. 

He accepted a commission to continue a translation of a Flemish herbalist’s history of plants, a publication which required 1,800 woodcuts for illustrations and which, before its enormously successful appearance in 1597, had caused various disputes and disagreements regarding its contents.

While Willes is in no doubt that Shakespeare used this as his main reference source, she accepts the new theory that in fact Shakespeare and Gerard were acquaintances, both being proteges of Lord Burghley, which in turn suggests that the playwright would have been familiar with some of the finest gardens in England.

Like other horticultural authorities of his day, Gerard considered husbandry the great and necessary skill of any gardener. 

Later huswifery was included by writers who understood that women, as well as men, had charge of gardens in which were grown not merely flowers or medicinal plants (often one and the same thing as Willes makes clear) but herbs, fruit and vegetables which put food on the table.

The illustrations used here are taken from Gerard’s The Herball or General Historie of Plantes which is one of the great treasures of the Bodleian Library. Brightened by these images this book too is a treasure, compact, readable and beautifully presented. 

Its scholarship is lightened by sensibility, as with an introductory passage on the wild pansy, a flower of the meadows of Warwickshire which Shakespeare must have known in his youth; in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ it is called ‘love-in-idleness’, just as remnants of Catholic usage survived the Reformation to give rue its friendly name of ‘herb o’ grace’ used by Ophelia in Hamlet. 

As with other medicinal plants, rue had to be handled with care, although useful for shingles, ear-ache, ulcers and even, ‘with brave optimism’, the plague.


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