Tanya Pollard
Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York

Medicines on the early modern stage could wield extraordinary powers. In Pericles (c. 1607), by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins, the physician Cerimon praises the “secret art” that has taught him “the blest infusions/ That dwell in vegetives, in metals, stones.” “I can speak of the disturbances/ That nature works,” he promises,“and of her cures.” Cerimon’s unnamed infusions are almost supernatural in their reach. In his hands, they bring new life to a woman who had apparently died in childbirth, transforming a story of tragic grief into a series of unexpected emotional reversals.

Cerimon’s remedies are extreme, but the theater of this period is saturated in potent medicines. Among their many functions, stage drugs captured both the excitement and the sense of risk surrounding the period’s rapidly changing pharmacy. For audiences living through repeated catastrophic plague bouts, medical solutions were as urgent as they were uncertain. Social, intellectual,and political developments challenged longstanding assumptions about reliable treatments. New global travel and new translations of ancient texts expanded the range of available drugs, introducing foreign plants such as tobacco and opium, as well as the potent but dangerous chemical medicines promoted by the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493–1541). In the wake of these changes, pharmacy promised access to greater health, ease, and comfort – better living through chemistry. Without clear and consistent dosing, however, experiments with new substances could be not merely ineffective, but even fatal.

The possibility of miracle drugs sparked playwrights’ imaginations. In Ben Jonson’s city comedy The Alchemist (1610), three con artists claim to have nearly achieved the mythical philosopher’s stone, which their most rapt believer boasts that he will use to “fright the plague/ Out of the kingdom in three months.”Pretending to be an Italian mountebank, the lead character of another Jonson comedy similarly claims to possess a “blessed unguento” [ointment] with “power to disperse all malignant humors” (Volpone, 1606). While Jonson mocks naïve belief in these cure-alls, Shakespeare suggests more faith in unfamiliar medicines. In All’s Well that Ends Well (c. 1604), a young physician’s daughter uses her secret medical knowledge to heal the King of France. In King Lear (1606), a doctor eases the king’s frayed mind through remedies that induce sleep. And in Cymbeline (c. 1610), a physician successfully foils an attempted murder by replacing a dangerous drug with one that safely mimics its effects.

Lacking names or details, these staged medicines may exist only in the minds of the playwrights who invented them. Many plays, however, include names and details of actual early modern treatments. City comedies such as Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Honest Whore (1604) and The Roaring Girl (c. 1610) show Londoners enjoying tobacco, widely touted at the time as medicinal. Shakespeare’s Macbeth invokes herbal remedies to imagine expelling the English from Scotland:“What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug,/ Would scour these English hence?” (Macbeth, 1606). Volpone underscores the potential dangers of risky substances when he accuses unscrupulous doctors of giving patients “one poor groat’s worth of unprepared antimony.” Perhaps most strangely, in John Webster’s violent revenge tragedy The White Devil (1612), a maligned wife threatens to dismember her husband’s mistress and “Preserve her flesh like mummia,” referring to a controversial medicine made of powdered dead human flesh. In both realistic and fantastical scenes, playwrights showcase recognizable elements of the period’s pharmacy.

Some of the most popular medicines in plays are narcotics, credited with easing suffering through the promise of sleep. When Lady Macbeth descends into madness, Macbeth asks a doctor to “minister to a mind diseased… with some sweet oblivious antidote.” Others crave specific soporific drugs, such as opium or mandragora, a plant with narcotic, anesthetic, and hallucinogenic effects. “Give me to drink mandragora,” Shakespeare’s Cleopatra orders her servants, “…That I might sleep out this great gap of time/ My Antony is away” (Anthony and Cleopatra, c. 1606). After planting the seeds of suspicion in Othello’s mind, Iago gloats, “Not poppy, nor mandragora,/ Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,/ Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep/ Which thou owedst yesterday” (Othello, 1604). Confronted by threats of loneliness, unhappiness, and anxiety, characters in tragedies routinely yearn for the solace of drug-induced oblivion.

As these examples suggest, playwrights used the language of medicine capaciously, to address a wide range of ailments. The maladies at the heart of tragedies, comedies, and mixed-genre plays could be physical, spiritual, domestic, political, and more. With their reassuring ties to the authority of new scientific developments, medicines on the early modern stage could give tangible form to the dream of repair and restoration.

Additional Reading

Moss, Stephanie, and Kaara L. Peterson, eds. Disease, Diagnosis, and Cure on the Early Modern Stage. Farnham: Ashgate, 2004; reprint by Routledge, 2017.

Paster, Gail Kern. Humoring the Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Pettigrew, Todd Howard James. Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2007.

Pollard, Tanya. Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wear, Andrew. Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.