Poisons, sleep-inducing plants and love potions in Gerard’s Herball


This stunningly illustrated Herball explains the origins and properties, the culinary uses, and the dangers and benefits of a wealth of herbs and other plants. It gives us a wonderful insight into the drugs, remedies and poisons that are central to the action in so many of Shakespeare’s plays.

The popular Herball was compiled by the botanist John Gerard (c. 1545–1612), the manager of Lord Burghley’s gardens. It draws heavily on the writings of the Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens, but adds local English detail. The book is lavishly illustrated with more than 1,800 prints, most of them taken from an earlier work of 1590. In this particular copy, many have been coloured by hand and there are handwritten notes in the margins.

John Gerard and Shakespeare

A recent issue of Country Life magazine (May 2015) created a considerable stir by claiming that the illustration of the young man on the bottom right of Gerard’s title page was none other than William Shakespeare. Regardless of whether this claim is true, the Herball gives us a fascinating insight into the 16th-century plants that inspired Shakespeare’s drama.[1]

‘Of Sleeping Nightshade’ (pp. 269–70): Juliet’s sleep-inducing drug

In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence – like John Gerard – celebrates ‘the powerful grace that lies / In herbs, plants, stones’ (2.3.15–16). He gives Juliet a ‘liquor’ to make her ‘cold and drowsy’ with ‘no warmth, no breath … like death’ (4.1.94–101). Sleeping nightshade is one of several plants with sleep-inducing properties mentioned in Gerard’s Herball. When consumed it makes people waver between sleep and death. Gerard warns that it is so ‘furious and deadly’ that it provokes ‘a dead sleepe wherein many have died’ (p. 270).

‘Of Henbane’ (pp. 282–84): the poisoning of Hamlet’s father

The ghost of Hamlet’s father says the ‘juice of cursed hebona’ was poured in his ear by Claudius (1.5.62). It is possible that Shakespeare had ‘henbane’ in mind, though that plant is said to prompt different symptoms. Rather than turning the blood to ‘curd’ (1.5.69), Gerard says henbane brings on ‘an unquiet sleepe’ which is ultimately ‘deadly’ (p. 284).

‘Of little Daisies’ (pp. 509–11) and ‘Of Violets’ (pp. 698–99): Ophelia’s flowers

As she descends into madness, Ophelia appears one last time distributing flowers (4.5.178–86). Critics have suggested that each flower has a symbolic meaning – columbine signifies Gertrude’s infidelity, daisies are for unhappy love and violets are for faithfulness, which she lost when ‘her father died’. Gerard also sees violets as symbols of innocence that ‘stir’ men to ‘honest’ behaviour (p. 698).

‘Of Potatoes’ (pp. 780–82): lust-inducing drugs in Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

There are two love potions in Shakespeare. Othello is accused of using ‘drugs’ to seduce Desdemona (1.3.91), and Puck’s famous ‘love-in-idleness’ makes people ‘madly dote’ on the first creature they see (2.1.168–72). In Gerard’s Herball, it is not ‘love in idleness’ but the humble potato which is said to prompt ‘bodily lust’ (p. 781).

Importantly, however, in Shakespeare’s day, the potato was new and exotic. Gerard is the first herbalist to show an illustration of what he calls ‘Potatoes of Virginia’, though in fact they came from Peru. He is even shown, in the portrait at the start of the first volume, holding potato foliage.

‘Of Woolfes bane’ (pp. 816–17): the poisoned sword in Hamlet

Claudius plots with Laertes to kill Hamlet using a sword dipped in ‘potent poison’ (5.2.353), leaving him with less than ‘half an hour of life’ (5.2.315). In his entry on ‘Woolfes bane’, Gerard warns that ‘an arrowe or other instrument dipped in the juice’ will kill a man or ‘wild beaste’ ‘within halfe an hower’ (p. 818).

The table (sig. fffff4r) at the back of the Herball shows the dizzying range of risks and cures attributed to plants in this era. Some hide the rank smell of armpits, while others prevent the evil effects of rain. The final pages (sig. Iiiii4r–v) contain manuscript notes in different early modern hands, describing cures for ailments such as colic and eye pain.

[1] See Edward Tabor, ‘Plant Poisons in Shakespeare’, Economic Botany, Vol. 24, Issue 1 (January 1970), pp. 81–94. 

Full title:
The herball or Generall historie of plantes
Folio / Book / Engraving / Illustration / Image / Manuscript annotation
John Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, William Rogers [engraver]
Usage terms

The printed text is Public Domain.
The handwritten annotations are Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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