What is the meaning of the pansy flower, called "love-in-idleness" in Shakespeare?
The pansy of Shakespeare's day was probably closer to what we call "johnny-jump-ups" than to the large, velvety flowers that grace our gardens, which were developed in the nineteenth century.
The small pansy-like bloom, also known as "heartsease" or "love-in-idleness," was cultivated throughout Europe in the sixteenth century for medicinal purposes. Under the name of Herbal Trinitatis or Trinity Herb, it was used to treat heart ailments as well as a host of other maladies, including pleurisy, skin diseases, convulsions, epilepsy and fits, childhood ague, and falling sickness. Culpeper, a seventeenth-century medical writer, adds,
"A strong decoction of syrup of the herb and flower is an excellent cure for the venereal disease."
In Hamlet, Ophelia evokes the French derivation of the name—"pensées" or "thoughts"—when she says, "and there is pansies, that's for thoughts."
Did gardeners in Shakespeare's time grow the same kinds of plants we do today and use them in similar ways?
Commonly known fruits, vegetables, and herbs were used in ways that would not surprise a contemporary cook, but they were also put to household uses that might today involve a trip to the pharmacy or hardware store. For example, the catalog for the Folger exhibition The Housewife's Rich Cabinet: Remedies, Recipes, & Helpful Hints explains how dill-seed was used to cure hiccups, lettuce to prevent drunkenness, and oregano to prevent an ant infestation. Herbs were used to scent clothing and sweeten breath, and to treat ailments from toothaches to the plague.
Radishes were especially useful. When applied to the soles of the feet with vinegar and salt, they were thought to draw out melancholic vapors. A liquor made from salted radishes could be used to get rid of unsightly warts:
"Anoint your warts 3 or 4 times in a day (the oftener the better), and in 5 or 6 days they will consume away."
Another tipster recommended them as an effective way to eliminate snakes:
"Strike them with a large radish, and one stroke kills them."
That same source suggested a vegetarian solution for driving out moles:
"Take a head or two of garlic, onion, or leek, and put it into their holes, and they'll run out as if amazed."
Elizabethan Garden, Folger Shakespeare Library
Elizabethan Knot Garden
Herb sale, Shakespeare's Birthday
Comedy and Tragedy masks
Elizabethan Garden on Public Radio | Real Player
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Brooklyn Botanical Garden