King's College London
Online Exhibitions
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Healing herbs

Opening showing a description of the common plantain and the use of its leaves as a poulticeOpening showing a description of the common plantain and the use of its leaves as a poulticeShakespeare’s plays and poems abound in imagery drawn from the plant world, imagery which often combines beauty with close and accurate observation.

Nearly 800 different plants are named in his works, from the common kitchen herbs and English meadow flowers enumerated by the mad Ophelia to the ‘Arabian trees’ yielding ‘medicinal gum’ to which Othello compares his weeping self.  Shakespeare shows plants as instruments of death – there are several instances of death by poison in his plays – but also as tools of healing.  

The image here is from John Gerard’s Herball, a work with which Shakespeare was probably familiar, opened to show the description of the common plantain. Gerard recommends the use of its leaves as a poultice:

It stayeth bleeding, it heales up hollow sores and ulcers, as well old as new.

As does Romeo:

Romeo. Your plantain leaf is excellent for that.
Benvolio. For what, I pray thee?
Romeo. For your broken shin.

Probably the best known English herbal, John Gerard’s monumental work, first published in 1597, has gained for its author a lasting reputation which he does not entirely deserve. Gerard’s text was largely derived from an unfinished English translation made by a Dr Priest of an earlier work, Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, by the great Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoens (1517-85), a fact which Gerard failed to acknowledge in his preface. Notwithstanding such plagiarism, Gerard (1545-1612) remains an important figure.

The huge scope of the Herbal, its copious woodcut illustrations and the author’s lively and readable text ensured its lasting popularity and in 1633, over 20 years after Gerard’s death, the revised and expanded edition featured here was published.

In this exhibition


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