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Shakespeare & Beyond

Love-in-idleness, Part Two: Intoxicating botanicals in 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'

Oberon and Titania
Oberon and Titania

Pansies, also known as heartease or love-in-idleness. Photo by Marissa Nicosia.

This blog post, exploring heartsease in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the second in a two-part series. Part One, which published earlier this week, featured an early modern recipe for heartsease cordial. Don’t miss Folger Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 12 – August 28), on stage at The Playhouse at the National Building Museum.

In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Athenians and fairies alike turn to flowers, plants, and herbs to forge the play’s complex relationships during a delirious night in the forest. Accordingly, the play blossoms with botanical language as its entangled love plots unfold. The most remarked-upon flower in this veritable bouquet is love-in-idleness, a flower that was also called a pansy or heartsease in Shakespeare’s England.

The fairy king Oberon sends Puck to fetch this purple-hearted bloom early in the play, and they both use it to drug the fairy queen, Titania, as well as the Athenian youths Lysander and Demetrius, rearranging couplings with a dash of juice applied to the unsuspecting eyes of slumbering lovers. Before Oberon dispatches Puck, he recounts the origin story of how “love in idleness” came to be imbued with such potent properties.

That very time I saw (but thou couldst not),
Flying between the cold moon and the Earth,
Cupid all armed. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal thronèd by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon,
And the imperial vot’ress passèd on
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before, milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it “love-in-idleness.”
Fetch me that flower; the herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league. (2.1.161-180)

In this speech, Oberon explains that he watched Cupid aim his arrow at a votaress of Diana (goddess of the moon), but saw the moon protect the maiden from harm by misdirecting the arrow with her moonshine. The arrow instead struck a small, white flower: “It fell upon a little western flower, / Before, milk-white, now purple with love’s wound, / And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness’” (2.1.172-174). According to Oberon’s account, this wounded pansy now carries a purple heart and Cupid’s amorous powers. Although Puck is sent away some distance to retrieve the pansy, Oberon’s story of floral transformation implies that every pansy, every bloom of heartsease, or love-in-idleness, might carry transformative potential.

Oberon and Titania

Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene 2. Fr. Schwörer, del. ; G. Goldberg, sc. Folger ART File S528m5 no.27 (size M)

Within the larger botanical and medical context that I explored in my previous blog post, the love-in-idleness flower interweaves the language of love and remedy, intoxication and danger, sweetness and surfeit in the play. Although a heartsease cordial might “clear the heart” or enliven the sad, in the hands of Oberon and Puck, love-in-idleness is a powerful drug or intoxicant.

Benjamin Breen’s study of drugs in the period reminds us that “drug” could equally refer to an intoxicant or a substance that would prevent or treat illness. He writes that the term was shifting in meaning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from a word referring “to dry goods, from medicinal herbs and spices to dyes, soaps, incense, or pigments” that gradually changed by “gaining associations with exotic spices, medicines, and poisons” as well as associations with intoxication and stupefaction (7).

After Lysander has been drugged with love-in-idleness and become smitten with Helena, he describes his now dissipated affection for Hermia in terms of excess – “as a surfeit of the sweetest things / The deepest loathing to the stomach brings” – just as too much sweetness causes an upset stomach that teaches the indulgent a newfound restraint, so too Lysander has learned to hate and reject Hermia whom he once adored (2.2.144-145). When Hermia confronts Lysander, he likens her to a dreaded cordial saying “Out, loathèd med’cine! O, hated potion, hence!” (3.2.275). By contrast, when Oberon anoints Demetrius’s eyes in the hope of directing the young Athenian’s affections toward Helena, he recites these rhyming verses that recall the origin story of love-in-idleness:

Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid’s archery,
Sink in apple of his eye.
When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.—
When thou wak’st, if she be by,
Beg of her for remedy. (3.2.104-111)

Once Demetrius has been anointed with this purple flower, the only “remedy” for his infatuation will be Helena herself. Finally, testifying before Theseus’s hunting party in the harsh light of the morning, Demetrius – still under the sway of love-in-idleness – likens his restored love of Helena as returning to his “natural taste,” describing her as a food that he only loathed and rejected because of “a sickness” (4.1.178-183).

Love can be a sickness or a “remedy” just as love-in-idleness is also pharmakon, both drug and cure. A sweet syrup made from love-in-idleness might clear the heart, or enlighten the patient, or it might bring on delirium or intoxication.

Further reading:

Benjamin Breen, The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)

Mary Floyd-Wilson, “Potions, Passions, and Fairy Knowledge in A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Shakespeare in Our Time, edited by Dympna Callaghan and Suzanne Gossett (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Note of thanks: I would like to thank Rebecca Bushnell for sharing her thoughts about heartsease and Midsummer over email, Sally and Dave Falck for their hospitality, Joseph Malcomson for assistance with the cocktail recipe, and Claire Falck, Carissa M. Harris, and Thomas Ward for reading an earlier draft of this piece and sampling an array of heartsease beverages.