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…Violet was particularly useful:
The floures are good for all inflammations, especially of the sides and lungs... the hoarseness of the chest...ruggedness of the winde-pipe and jawes, and take away thirst…

Brian Barratt considers the medicinal uses of the flowers and plants of various kinds which are mentioned in "A Midsummer Night's Dream".

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Rambling through "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -4

Flowers and plants of various kinds are mentioned in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Oberon tells Puck about some of them and instructs him to use two which are at the heart of the story. Two of the fairies are named after plants. It will be interesting to explore what Shakespeare and his audiences knew about the flowers and plants he mentioned.

The clue to knowledge and beliefs of the time lies in "Romeo and Juliet". At the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3, the Friar says:
I must up-fill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.

In modern English, this would be something like, "I must fill up this wicker basket with weeds which are usually regarded as harmless but have hidden medicinal qualities, and flowers which yield very valuable juice."

He goes on to speak of the blessings that lie dormant in plants and herbs. They might contain poison but they also have medicinal power.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" 2,1,168, Oberon commands Puck to bring a special flower named love-in-idleness. It was also known as heartsease, and was the wild pansy from which our many types of pansy have developed. The magical juice of this flower, said Oberon, will make a sleeping person, upon whom you sprinkle it, fall in love with the first person they see when they awake.

Perhaps love-in-idleness, the wild pansy, appeared to have a little face in its petals. Isn't it fascinating that we in the 21st century still see "pansy faces"?

In 4,1,72, Oberon calls for a flower which will act as the antidote, "Dian's bud", which was named after the Roman goddess Diane whose name signified "daylight". The actual plant was probably sweet William or another of the pink (carnation) family. As far as I have been able to ascertain, these were used for pleasurable decoration in Elizabethan times, not for medicinal purpose.

Oberon tells of a bank where other flowers grow. When we research contemporary books, we find that many of them were believed to have medicinal uses. (The sources of these quotations will be listed at the end of the last article in this series.)

Wild thyme, spelt as wilde time:
It helpeth against the bitings of any venomous beast, either taken in drinke or outwardly applied.
It is excellently good to be given either in phrenzy [madness] or lethargy, although they are two contrary diseases... it comforts and strengthens the head, stomach, reins, and womb, expels wind, and breaks the stone.

Oxlip, a form of cowslip, was a remedy for:
...the curing of the phrensie...
...purgeth the brain and qualifieth the pain of the megrim...

Venus lays claim to this herb as her own, and it is under the sign Aries, and our city dames know well enough the ointment or distilled water of it adds beauty, or at least restores it when it is lost.

Violet was particularly useful:
The floures are good for all inflammations, especially of the sides and lungs... the hoarseness of the chest...ruggedness of the winde-pipe and jawes, and take away thirst.

In folklore, this also implied that a necklace of violets would prevent drunkenness.
...to cool any distemperature of the body, either inwardly or outwardly, as inflammations of the eyes, in the matrix or fundament, in imposthumes also. [Imposthume = impostume = abcess.]

The floures steeped in oile, and set in the Sun, are good to annoint the body that is benummed, and growne very cold.
...it takes away the evil of the spleen, provokes urine, procures speedy delivery or women in travail, helps cold or stopping... as an ointment it will clear your skin of morphew, freckles and sun-burnings, or whatsoever discolours it. [Morphew = leprous or scurfy scaling of the skin.]

Also called honeysuckle, in British folklore if a flower is brought into the house a wedding is sure to follow.

One of the fairies is named Mustardseed. As a remedy, mustardseed was thought to be:
Good for the aged, the heart, digestion of meat, epilepsy, drowsy forgetful evil, purges the brain by sneezing, mushroom poisoning, venomous bites, stirring up bodily lust, tooth-ache, sciatica, gout.

It's interesting that a recipe in a collection published in 1660 suggested that if pulses do not boil quickly enough, you could add a mustard seed to the pot to hasten the cooking. I wonder if Shakespeare knew about that, in relation to linking these first two names?

Peaseblossom is a name which might ring a bell if you are familiar with old nursery rhymes. This one appeared in print in the late 1700s but had probably been sung by children for a long time before that:
Pease-porridge hot,
Pease-porridge cold,
Pease-porridge in a pot
Nine days old.

Pease, first used in English about 1,000 years ago, was both the singular and plural of what we now say as "pea". I cannot find any reference to medicinal uses but this is how it was described:
...bearing a pretty little pease-fashioned yellow flour... floures in June, July and August.

There's nothing startling in all this but it reveals that when you read between the lines, there's a lot more to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" than first meets the eye.

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