Voices

Would Shakespeare's potions really work?

By Dr Tim Slingsby

01 December 2016 - 09:45

Shakespeare's plays are full of biochemical concoctions, and references to cosmology, so how much of a scientist was he? We asked the British Council's former science adviser, Dr Tim Slingsby.

What can we learn about love potions used by Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What do we know about the effects of 'love-in-idleness', or wild pansy, on humans?

We know that Puck's love potion would not work. There are indications that extracts from the wild pansy could have potential uses in the treatments of cancer, but I am not aware of any work that has looked at this directly. It is used as a herbal remedy for skin conditions, such as eczema, impetigo and acne, although scientific trials of its efficacy are difficult to find.

Are there any real love potions?

I’m not certain there are any real 'love potions', but certainly, there are a number of aphrodisiacs. These deal with sexual function (e.g., Viagra), rather than seduction, however. What I find interesting is that science has been able to identify a naturally occurring 'love hormone' called oxytocin, produced in the hypothalamus area of the brain. It plays a role in social bonding and sexual reproduction, and stimulates feelings of love or affection in humans. It is also generally accepted to have a role in modulating fear and anxiety. Another hormone, dopamine, is released when we kiss – and stimulates the same areas of the brain as cocaine.

What do scientists know about the 'cursed hebenon' that Hamlet suspects kills his father?

Not much, as nobody is really sure what 'hebenon' is. There are theories that it might be hemlock, nightshade, yew, ebony or henbane. All of these are poisonous, although none of them would have produced the 'vile and loathsome crust' that the old king says appeared on his skin after the poison was poured in his ear. As hemlock is mentioned in many of his other plays, it is unlikely to be that, but there is a good case to be made for yew, ebony and henbane – and it remains entirely possible that Shakespeare just made up a word for dramatic effect.

What sleeping drug do you think Juliet took in Romeo and Juliet? And what poison did Romeo take? 

Neither are actually named in the plays, which gives us a lot of room to speculate. And there are any number of poisons that occur naturally – from rhubarb leaves (which contain oxalic acid) to deadly nightshade and wolfsbane (both of which are very toxic indeed).

Why did Cleopatra choose an asp to commit suicide? How would people have known about the effects of an asp bite in England?

Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra has immortalised the idea that Cleopatra used an asp to commit suicide. According to the Greek essayist Plutarch, she chose the asp after testing different snake venoms on a series of criminals and deciding that this offers the most painless death.

The word 'asp' referred to several venomous snakes in the Nile region, and the venom of the most likely snake – the Egyptian cobra – would actually have caused an excruciating death. It has been suggested elsewhere that she took a mix of poisons – either as an ointment or orally - and even that she may have been murdered.

What was the scientific background to the ingredients in the brew made by the witches in Macbeth?

Only a few of the ingredients added to the cauldron are plants. There are a number of bits of animals and people, and I imagine that most of the ingredients that Shakespeare chose are to symbolise evil, rather than any specific effect. However, the plants that are named, hemlock and yew, are very toxic and can cause rapid death.

Find out about the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities in 2016, celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death.

Dr Tim Slingsby is Director of Skills and Education at Lloyd's Register Foundation.

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