Shakespeare Lives in Science;
poisons, potions and drugs

Do Shakespearean concoctions really work?

Poisons and potions are the weapons of choice for many of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters. Used to seduce lovers, kill enemies and gain power, nothing was too noxious for Shakespeare.

We took a closer look at the botanical and zoological basis of some of these elixirs to find out whether they'd actually work.

Love potions

Scene from Midsummer Night's Dream 'come sit thee down upon this flowery bed' William John Montaigne C.1820-1902

One of Shakespeare's most famous love potions is used by the fairy Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and made from a flower called ‘love-in-idleness’, otherwise known as the wild pansy (Viola tricola).

The potion is created when Cupid shoots an arrow at 'the imperial votaress' (Queen Elizabeth I), but misses and instead hits the flower. The petals turn from white to purple, and the flower's juice becomes a love potion. Puck then places the potion on the sleeping eyes of Lysander, and later Demetrius which causes chaos in the forest.

In the natural world, petal colour is an important feature of plants, as insects use petal designs to determine where they should land to collect nectar. Many insects can also see a broader spectrum of light than humans including ultraviolet, which means that flowers look significantly different in 'insect view'.

Scientifically speaking, viola tricolor is not able to induce love, but extracts from the plant have been shown to be anti-microbial and cytotoxic. Cytotoxic chemicals can kill whole cells so may be able to treat diseases caused by uncontrolled growth, like cancers.

There does however exist a 'love hormone' known as oxytocin which can foster feelings of love or affection in humans, and the hormone dopamine which is released when we kiss, has been found to stimulate the same areas of the brain as heroin and cocaine.

Photo credits
Viola tricolor; creative commons on Flickr Jose Luis Cernadas Iglesias
Bee on pansy; creative commons on Flickr Orangeaurochs


Image Credit: Peripitus, 2008

Poison takes a leading role in Hamlet, as sibling rivalry leads to regicide and throws the Danish royal castle at Elsinore into a state of jealously and mistrust.

King Hamlet, father to Prince Hamlet and brother to Claudius dies seemingly in his sleep, but the young prince soon discovers that poison in the ear was in fact the cause.

'Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole; With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial; And in the porches of my ears did pour.'

Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5

Scientists and scholars have wondered what Shakespeare meant by "cursed hebenon". There may be a few possibilities including hemlock, nightshade, yew, ebony and henbane.

Indeed henbane looks the closest in spelling, and the active ingredient in henbane is hyoscyamine which if concentrated to a high degree could be lethal to humans. Perhaps this is what Shakespeare is referring?

Sleeping draughts

Romeo and Juliet, Francis Sydney Muschamp, 1886

In the final act of Romeo and Juliet, our tragic heroine takes a potion to fake her own death and place her into a catatonic state. Many believe the potion is most likely to be deadly nightshade (Atropa Belladonna) a plant native to Europe.

'The dose would be very low. A berry can kill a small child. It certainly is a classical case of a highly toxic plants, but it all depends on the form of administration, the dose, and other circumstances, the persons characteristics (age, size, preconditions).'

UCL Professor Michael Heinrich

Other soporific candidates that are found in nature could have been the seeds of the bulrush plant, or a herb called leopards bane. Both of these plants are toxic, however none would have the capacity to induce a coma with a heartbeat so slow it could be mistaken for death.

Upon finding Juliet and believing her to be dead, Romeo uses a powerful, fast-acting poison to take his own life. An obvious choice for such a strong poison is potassium cyanide or the medieval monkshood, both of which cause rapid respiratory failure.

'Put this in any liquid thing you will, and drink it off; and, if you had the strength of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.'

Romeo and Juliet: Act 5, Scene 1

First Image Credit: Romeo gives money to an apothecary for a potion that will fake his death. First published by Bowles and Carver, courtesy of Wellcome Images, London.

Second Image: Atropa Belladonna. Danny S. 2008.


The Death of Cleopatra, Reginald Arthur, 1892

In Antony and Cleopatra Act 5 Scene 2 Cleopatra, on learning of Mark Antony's death and being unwilling to be taken alive by Caesar, sets in motion her own suicide by an asp bite to the breast.

Cleopatra holds Antony as he dies in her arms

A late 19th century painting of Act IV, Scene 15: Cleopatra holds Antony as he dies.

In ancient history, an asp referred to a number of different venomous snakes from around the Nile region. Cleopatra had already administered the venom to criminals to test its effects and believed an asp bite allowed for a much more humane death.

There are four main types of snake venom; proteolytic, which disrupts the molecular structure of the bite region, haemotoxic which affects the blood and cardiovascular system, neurotoxic which acts on the nervous system and cytotoxic which has a localised effect at the bite site.

The asp venom that was most likely used by Cleopatra is both neurotoxic and cytotoxic and would have caused a particularly excruciating death. The venom first stops signals to the muscles, and later to the heart and lungs. Victims die from respiratory failure.


Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches on a heath, Engraving by W. Bromley after J.H. Füssli's painting, Wellcome Library, London

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the three witches brew a potion with ingredients chosen to symbolise incredible evil. Amongst human organs and animal parts, the witches use the root of the deadly hemlock (Conium maculatum), a highly poisonous plant known to have a chemical structure and pharmacological properties similar to nicotine. Even in low doses, the plant can cause respiratory failure and death. The root of the plant, used by the witches in their deadly concoction is known to have the highest toxicity concentration of all of the plant.

The witches also add yew (Taxus baccata). The plant contains the highly toxic alkaloid taxine which if ingested can cause rapid death through cardiac arrest.

Though the witches potion is a magical creation, the deathly potential of the ingredients used is very much real. The plants are some of the most poisonous species found in Western Europe and it is evident that Shakespeare was aware of their lethal nature.

It is also significant that the witches were boiling their broth. Boiling has long been known to sterilise water and destroy pathogenic, disease causing micro-organisms. The increased temperature would also give the molecules more kinetic energy and the reaction would proceed faster. However, whether or not the concentration of the product would increase is dependent on the type of reaction.

'In the caldron boil and bake; Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog'

Macbeth. Act 4, Scene 1

The scene is one of the most evocative in all of Shakespeare, and has inspired many writers, from J K Rowling to Samuel Beckett.

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You can find out about the genetics behind the recent archaeological Richard III project, the character in Shakespeare's play of the same name, as well as the relationship between poetry and neuroscience.