Magazine article Drug Topics

The Bard and Pharmacy

Magazine article Drug Topics

The Bard and Pharmacy

Article excerpt

While penning the plays and poetry that have stood the test of literary time, William Shakespeare also showed a more than casual knowledge of the medicines sold by the apothecaries of his time. Writing of rhubarb and senna, bitter apple and colocynth, his works refer to more than 180 herbs and plants.

There was no pharmacopoeia in Shakespeare's lifetime, but the term materia medica embraced everything related to medicinal substances and herbs. He mentions poppy (opium) along with mandragora and 'drowsy syrup.' Narcotics and poisons enter the plots of several plays, perhaps the best known being Romeo and Juliet.

In King Lear, Cordelia speaks of burdock, the roots of which were used to ease high fever and gout; hemlock, a poison; nettles used as a counterinitant to reduce inflammation; and cuckoo flowers, used to stop vomiting and to strengthen a weak stomach.

Margaret, in Much Ado About Nothing, swears that the only thing for qualm is distilled Carduus benedictus, which early herbalists believed was a cure-all. Qualm, by the way, is a sudden attack of illness, faintness, or nausea.

The Bard of Avon, perhaps foreseeing the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, even alluded to patient counseling. In Henry IV, Warwick says, "It is but as body, yet distempered; which to his former strength may be restored. With good advice and a little medicine."

In his works, Shakespeare mentions the apothecary three times: in Cymbeline, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet.

"I do remember an apothecary," says the lovestruck Romeo, searching for a poison the sale of which was prohibited in Mantua on pain of death. …

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