The Church of Woodstock

Woodstock poster

A story that has received considerable attention in the media over the past few weeks celebrates the 50th anniversary of what was originally advertised as the “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” in upstate New York. In keeping with the 1960s counter cultural aim of establishing an “Age of Aquarius,” the festival was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” and “3 Days of Peace and Music.” As I was working in New York City at the time, it was not difficult for me to attend the festival, which I did. The story of what happened is well known and has been widely discussed. What was supposed to be an audience optimistically estimated at perhaps 50,000 people turned into a gathering of some 400,000 who came together to hear music performed by many of the cutting-edge artists of the time. The overall mood of the audience was one of cooperation and realization of mutual aims devoted to opposing racism and war and promoting love and peace. In spite of the sometimes chaotic organization of the entire affair, there was virtually no violence. The vast group of young people and the temporary city that grew up around the festival stage showed the world that perhaps a different kind of society was indeed possible, free from the economic and social assumptions that plagued the world.

Psychotropic drugs, and hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and mescaline in particular, played an important role in promoting the quasi-religious atmosphere that prevailed at the festival. Indeed, the connection between hallucinatory thinking and religious experience is a close one going back to the very beginnings of human culture. The word “hallucination” was a neologism coined by the great Sir Thomas Browne in a chapter of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) in which he discussed the proposition, apparently current at the time, that all moles are blind. He thought not. In the article entitled “Of Moles,” he considered several kinds of visual problems to which he assigned different names. For example, he wrote that if vision is “depraved and receive[s] its objects erroneously—hallucination.” Of course hallucinations had been described for hundreds of years even if, prior to Browne, they were not named as such. The occurrence of a hallucination in an individual was always interpreted in a religious context. More often than not, the victim was thought to be possessed by a devil or evil spirit. But this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, many great religious leaders have experienced hallucinations and they have been interpreted as the receipt of important information from a deity.

One can see how this played out historically, and how it was eventually closely associated with the development of the Age of Aquarius in the 1960s. In the last four centuries, for example, there were several important religious figures who experienced marked hallucinations and used them as part of their religious message. This was certainly true of the influential 17th century theosophist Jacob Boehme and of the mystical leader Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century. Of course the figure who was widely appropriated by the 1960s counter culture movement was that of William Blake. Blake suffered from hallucinations throughout his life—of angels sitting in the trees, for example. Moreover, his revolutionary technical advances in print making were inspired by visions of his deceased younger brother who provided him with technical information. The kind of mystical world inhabited by Blake was a powerful contrast to the burgeoning Enlightenment by which he was surrounded. This is certainly clear in his art—which can obviously be seen by comparing a picture by Blake to one painted by the great portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was his contemporary.

Joshua Reynolds: Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in “Love for Love” by William Congreve (1771)
William Blake (1757–1827): The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun

But things go a lot deeper than that. Blake completely rejected the intellectual underpinnings of the Enlightenment saying things such as “I must not reason and compare: my business is to create.” Blake had no time for science which he thought was a force that constrained the mind and reduced human creativity. Blake took issue with important Enlightenment figures such as Newton and Locke, satirizing them in his mythical universe as Urizen—a character who pedantically stifled creativity through the rule of law and rational thinking. Blake famously portrayed Newton situated in a cave where, as in Plato’s Republic, he was only aware of the shadows of reality.

William Blake: Newton (1795)

Mystical thinkers like Blake, Swedenborg and Boehme were part of an entire intellectual history which has been called the Western Esoteric Tradition, which, as opposed to science, deals much more with myth and mysticism as an explanation for the world. The fact that this tradition has gone from strength to strength over the years in the face of extraordinary advances in our scientific understanding of Nature speaks to what must surely be some important advantages it must have for human society. Indeed, thinkers such as CG Jung strongly believed that mystical thinking and beliefs were actually hard-wired into the human psyche and had important functions for human cognition. Although present throughout history, organizations that encouraged non-rationalist thinking underwent a strong resurgence during the 19th century, particularly in association with the establishment of the Theosophical society by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. The actual factual basis for Madame Blavatsky’s religion as detailed in her books Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine,that she received information telepathically from Tibetan adepts living in the Himalayas which engendered her theory of human evolution and her ideas about contact with the spiritual world,would clearly seem like complete nonsense to anybody with modern scientific training. Nevertheless, in spite of this, Blavatsky’s ideas have proven to be enormously influential with people who are not invested in a scientific outlook of the world and are receptive to ideas of a mystical nature. For example, the Theosophical notion that thoughts actually had shapes and colors, as detailed by Blavatsky’s successors Annie Besant and William Leadbetter in their book Thought-Forms, provided a powerful stimulus to people like Hilma af Klint, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky who were all committed Theosophists and developed non-representational modern painting.

Annie Besant and CW Leadbetter: The Music of Gounod in Thought-Forms” (1901)
Wassily Kandinsky: Untitled (1910)

It is this type of thinking that can be enabled in individuals by hallucinogenic drugs like LSD. As Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.” Many others, including Aldous Huxley in his study of mescaline use, have subsequently used “The Doors of Perception” as an allusion to the use of hallucinogenic drugs, allowing imaginative and creative thought that is not shackled by rational thinking.

Indeed, hallucinogenic drugs have always been associated with religious thinking. When the Spaniards first conquered Mexico in the 16th century, they quickly became aware that the religions of the indigenous peoples relied to a great extent on the use of hallucinogens in the ceremonies. Great scholars like the marrano priest Bernardino de Sahagun—who produced the 16th century Florentine Codex, an anthropological text describing the societies of the indigenous Mexican populations—described the use of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, ergot alkaloid-containing morning glory seeds, and mescaline-containing hallucinogenic cacti such as peyote (Lophophora Williamsi) by shamans when they conducted religious ceremonies. Many of these practices disappeared from plain view following the Spanish conquests, although they continued to be practiced in small villages out of the direct view of the conquistadors. However, this wasn’t the end of things. They were rediscovered in the 20th century by people such as Gordon Wasson who wrote about his findings in widely distributed articles such as his influential 1957 article “Seeking the magic mushroom” in Life Magazine.

One of the people that read the article was a young faculty member in the Psychology department at Harvard university named Timothy Leary. Leary journeyed to Mexico and sampled some psilocybin mushrooms. The experience had a profound effect on him and he returned to Harvard determined to investigate drug-induced experiences and how they might benefit modern Western societies. He performed several studies using university students as subjects. However, these were deemed unethical by the authorities and eventually Leary and some of his closest colleagues were dismissed. However, his activities had attracted the attention of numerous influential people including the heirs to the Mellon family fortune who now bankrolled Leary so that he could set up a private research institution which he named the Castilia Foundation (in reference to Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”) in a mansion in Millbrook, NY where he continued to carry out experiments with hallucinogens, particularly LSD. Leary did a great deal to popularize the use of LSD for personal improvement and for use in radical politics, telling young people to “Turn on, tune in and drop out.” Interestingly, the ceremonies carried out at the Castilia Foundation were based on the Tibetan book of the dead, thereby reviving once again the mystical traditions of 19th century theosophy. Whatever value was associated with Leary’s LSD-fueled therapies, it is certainly true to say that the fascinating effects produced by drugs like LSD were taken very seriously by psychiatrists in the two decades between 1950 and 1970 when thousands of bona fide research articles were published on the potential use of these drugs in the treatment of numerous psychiatric disorders.

Psychedelic drugs also found their way to the West Coast courtesy of the CIA. American intelligence had been investigating the potential of psychedelic drugs as brainwashing agents to be used as weapons in the Cold War. One of the people on whom they tested LSD was Ken Kesey, then a creative writing student at Stanford, who went on to write the bestselling novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Like Leary, Kesey rapidly became convinced in the power of hallucinogenic drugs to change humanity for the better, and with his group of acolytes, the Merry Pranksters, began to distribute LSD widely throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Hallucinogenic drug use fueled the San Francisco counter culture “hippie” movement, resulting in an entirely new day-glo aesthetic which characterized the psychedelic hallucinatory experience. This was particularly manifest in poster art sometimes paying homage to Helena Blavatsky and William Blake, obviously strong influences on the movement.

Poster for Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Madame Blavatsky—Stanley Mouse and Anton Kelley (1966)

The 1960s counter culture had many of the characteristics of a religion with shamans like Leary and Kesey. The enormous music festivals like Woodstock and Monterey were akin to religious gatherings fueled, as in ancient times, by the use of hallucinogens. This kind of behavior was anathema to the majority of middle-class Americans who became seriously frightened by what was going on, and President Nixon and his government passed the Controlled Substances Act that completely banned the possession and use of hallucinogens. Drugs like LSD (and cannabis) were categorized as Schedule 1 under the new law, which meant that they were deemed to be extremely dangerous and have no medical utility whatsoever. However, it should be noted that this move was entirely motivated by politics and not for bona fide medical reasons. In fact, it might be argued that drugs like LSD, which are not addictive, are useful in allowing humans access to a mystical psychological realm which could be extremely helpful to them. Nevertheless, with the passage of the Act, drugs like LSD completely disappeared from the arena of medical research.

The total eclipse of hallucinogens lasted for several decades. However, scientific interest in drugs that produced such interesting cognitive effects and had obvious psychotherapeutic potential was bound to resurface at some point. Over the last decade, there has been a clear revival of interest in the scientific underpinnings of hallucinogenic drug action, something that has been enabled by the use of powerful brain imaging techniques that were not available in the 1960s. It has been understood for many years that hallucinogens act as agonists at 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, but how this biochemical effect produced such profound changes in cognition was not known.

The detailed effects of drugs like LSD and psilocybin on the active, conscious human brain can be observed by using brain imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). Not surprisingly, drugs like LSD produce widespread changes in the activity of the brain. One of the most interesting things that has been consistently observed are changes in what is known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain. The DMN is an interconnected group of brain structures that seems to be particularly active when the brain is “at rest,” that is thinking without any explicit goal in mind. In other words, it is the state one is in when one is not actively engaged in a particular task and one’s mind is more focused on oneself. Indeed, it is considered likely that such self-reflective mental activity may constitute important aspects of our sense of self—or what we might call our ego.

Drugs like psilocybin and LSD decrease activity of brain structures within the DMN, while simultaneously increasing functional connectivity between various other brain regions—something that has been described by workers in the field as an increase in “entropy” of the connectivity of the brain. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the areas where major changes in connectivity or rhythmic activity occur express high concentrations of 5HT2A receptors for which the hallucinogenic drugs act as agonists. Taken together, these results indicate that hallucinogens enhance global and between-module communication while diminishing the integrity of individual modules like the DMN, and that this effect is mediated by the brain’s key integration centers such as those that are rich in 5-HT2A receptors. How are such changes in the activity of the brain to be interpreted? We know that drugs like LSD produce extraordinarily profound changes in mood, the quality of thought and sensory perceptions, frequently leading to synesthesia, hallucinations and delusions, alterations in an individual’s experience of time and space, and an individual’s experience of self. In particular, hallucinogenic drugs cause a loosening of an individual’s sense of ego—a phenomenon sometimes called “ego dissolution” or “ego death.” The way that such changes in the perception of self are interpreted will depend on the individual and the setting. They could be associated with a sense of henosis, oneness and bliss or they might lead to more negative interpretations, including fear and paranoid ideation associated with experiences of the loss of one’s ego. Of great interest is the fact that the LSD-induced changes to the DMN observed in imaging studies are closely correlated with the subjects reported sense of ego dissolution.

The connectome of the human brain on LSD

Because we are now starting to develop a more sophisticated picture of how hallucinogenic drugs alter the activity of the brain, we might ask whether such changes also occur in individuals who report mystical thinking. It is obviously the case that in many respects, LSD intoxication and mysticism represent very different mental states. Nevertheless, because they seem to overlap significantly, it is a reasonable question to ask what the neural correlates might be that define these areas of commonality? Certainly, not all experiences induced by hallucinogens are of the mystical type. However, with the proper setting, preparation, support, and dose, mystical experiences are occasioned with a high frequency. We know this very well because hallucinogenic drugs have been used by shamans and witch doctors for producing these very effects for thousands of years. Questionnaires supplied to subjects undergoing imaging studies with hallucinogenic drugs report a high incidence of mystical thinking. One of the most famous “experiments” carried out by Timothy Leary and his colleagues back in the 1960s was the Marsh Chapel experiment in which individuals participating in a Good Friday religious service were given psilocybin or a placebo and asked to rate their spiritual experience. Participants who had received psilocybin overwhelmingly reported that their experience during the service had been more spiritually meaningful. This same experiment has now been repeated a number of times and the results are always the same.

It appears, therefore, that humans have evolved an extremely ancient and deeply encoded capacity for mystical thinking, something that one might speculate is related to a need for humans to make spiritual connections with other individuals, the biosphere and the universe in general. In modern times, mystical thinking is often something that relates to an individual’s struggle for meaning in the face of a world which is increasingly “explained” by rational, material and scientific approaches which, in many respects, have sought to displace the mystical side of human existence. Mystical thinking can be accessed by meditative procedures, ecstatic religious practices, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and is sometimes present as an aspect of psychopathology. Brain imaging studies have started to provide us with an understanding of the neural substrates that may underlie this mode of thinking. Because mystical thinking is quintessentially irrational, it is not bound by the rules that normally govern much of conventional thinking, allowing an escape into a state of mind that is more “outside the box” and in many respects representative of a sort of creativity that can lead to original artistic and philosophical insights. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that since the earliest times, humans have found great utility in the use of naturally occurring hallucinogenic substances that help them to access mystical states. The modern world has attempted to legislate these substances out of the mainstream of human existence. But this is surely shortsighted, as it seems that they help us to address a fundamental human need. It is only when humanity fully appreciates both the rational and irrational sides of the human psyche that it will attain its full potential. Current research on hallucinogens has suggested that the personal insights afforded by such drugs may be therapeutically useful in the context of some psychiatric disorders such as depression.

The Woodstock festival was really a “religious” gathering in many respects. The aims of the young people who gathered there were admirable. But over the last 50 years, the influence of the 60s counter cultural movement has waned. Now, as science and society are becoming interested in the potential of hallucinogenic drugs once again, perhaps it is time to re-examine some of the goals of the Woodstock generation as a guide to healing a planet that is quickly succumbing to malevolent forces that are spinning out of control.

Ophelia’s Bouquet

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, 
that’s for thoughts. 
There’s fennel for you, and columbines.
There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we
may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. You must wear your
rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would
give you some violets, but they withered all
when my father died.

A few evenings ago, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Hamlet staged by the National Theater in London with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. I thought it was an altogether exciting and illuminating production. Among other things, it made me think about the numerous times when Shakespeare refers to the use of plants and natural products in his plays. Indeed, Shakespeare mentions more than 200 species of plants in his plays and frequently stages scenes in orchards or gardens. Shakespeare was tapping into an ancient tradition of using flowers as symbols in painting and literature. For example, Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera is often interpreted as an allegory. The painting illustrates over 100 different flowers that are symbols for Neo-Platonic messages that the artist wanted to convey to his audience.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (circa 1470)
Detail from Primavera illustrating flowers

Of course, Hamlet is one of the most famous examples of the use of plants and flowers for two reasons. First of all, there is the speech given by the “mad” Ophelia in which she gives flowers to different characters as a way of imparting particular messages to them (quoted above). But what exactly are those messages and why are the flowers in question associated with these meanings? A second interesting question concerns the death of Hamlet’s father as related to him by his father’s ghost and then represented to Claudius and Gertrude by the Players in their presentation of “The murder of Gonzago.” What exactly was the poison that was used in this case and how does it work? Let’s take a brief look at these various questions.

Rosemary: Ophelia gives her brother Laertes a sprig of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) saying, “that’s for remembrance.” Here Ophelia is urging her brother not to forget the events that have recently transpired. Because its scent lasted a long time when it was rubbed on the skin, rosemary was often used as a symbol of remembering and of immortality. Shakespeare again refers to rosemary in Romeo and Juliet, when Friar Laurence says during Juliet’s internment,

Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse; and, as the custom is,
In all her best array bear her to church
;

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse (1894)
Sibylle von Cleve by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

In Shakespeare’s time there was a custom of placing rosemary in coffins or of planting rosemary on a grave, suggesting that the memory of the deceased would never fade. Because rosemary does not shed its leaves, it also came to symbolize fidelity and fertility and so was often worn by brides. Lucas Cranach the Elder painted a fabulous portrait of Princess Sibylle von Cleve celebrating her betrothal to Johann Friedrich of Saxony in 1526. You can see a rosemary sprig in her hair.

All of which begs the question: is rosemary really good for your memory? And the answer may well be “yes.” Consider Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as an example of a situation in which human memory is severely compromised. One reason for this is that the neurodegenerative process that drives the disease targets nerves that are important for memory and other cognitive processes. In particular, nerves from the midbrain nucleus basalis that innervate the cortex are particularly sensitive and are some of the first to degenerate. These nerves use a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine to communicate with nerves in the cortex. When these nerves die, the stimulation of cortical nerves by acetylcholine decreases, and this is one of the major reasons for loss of cognitive ability. Normally, acetylcholine is destroyed by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. Hence, if one uses a drug to inhibit this enzyme then the levels of acetylcholine in the brain are increased. Theoretically, this should be helpful in AD and it is why acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are one of the types of drugs used to treat AD patients. Plants like rosemary contain thousands of small molecules. Some of these substances have interesting biological activities. Indeed, it is really amazing how many useful drugs had their origins as plant products. Consider morphine from the poppy, digoxin from the foxglove, aspirin from the willow, and vincristine from the periwinkle. Some “natural products” are shared by many different plants and others are unique. Often chemicals of this type are named for their plant of origin. For example, rosemary contains a substance known as rosmarinic acid. Analysis of the various chemical components of rosemary reveals that, among other things, it contains appreciable amounts of the chemical eucalyptol (also known as 1,8-cineole).

Eucalyptol
(1,8-cineole)

Interestingly, it has been shown that at concentrations found in the rosemary plant, this chemical can inhibit acetylcholinesterase and raise brain levels of acetylcholine. Getting mice to drink “shots” of rosemary water enhanced their performance in memory tests, thereby suggesting a 21st century explanation as to why rosemary has the ability to increase remembrance. Ophelia was right on the money with that one!

Pansy: Ophelia also gives pansies to Laertes for “thoughts.” Here, Shakespeare has come up with a nice little bilingual pun. In French, pansy is related to the word “pensées,” meaning “thoughts.” That is why in the Elizabethan era the pansy suggested sadness, pensiveness, and feelings of love. In fact, in Shakespeare’s time the flower called the pansy was really the wild ancestor of our modern hybrid pansy and was known as “heartsease” (Viola tricolor), a plant in the Viola family that we will discuss again below.

Fennel and Columbine: Ophelia gives these to King Claudius who we know has killed his brother and married his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is the symbol for flattery and columbine is considered the flower of “foolishness” and also for “deceived lovers,” a symbol of male adultery and faithlessness. Hence, Ophelia is implying that Claudius is susceptible to flattery and is also a fool and an adulterer. Fennel is a medicinal plant belonging to the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) family, used by humans since antiquity. Fennel has had an enormous number of uses since ancient times. The one which we are best acquainted with today is its culinary role because its mild aniseed-like flavor has made it popular throughout the world for use in salads and as a cooked vegetable. Fennel seeds are also often used as a “breath sweetener.” As far as its medical utility is concerned, fennel has been suggested to be effective in controlling infectious disorders of bacterial, fungal, viral, mycobacterium, and protozoal origin. It has antioxidant, antitumor, cytoprotective, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic, and oestrogenic activities. Some publications have suggested that F. vulgare has a memory-enhancing effect. Here again, this may be due to its eucalyptol/1,8-cineole content, the same substance that is found in rosemary.

It’s not clear why fennel should be connected with flattery. There are some fennel phytochemicals that help to maintain a good complexion and fennel has been formulated into a face cream for that purpose. It has undergone trials for its “anti-aging” effects on the skin. Perhaps it was used cosmetically in Shakespeare’s time? Maybe Ophelia is implying that people like Claudius are too concerned with their looks and outward appearances, and that was connected with his susceptibility to flattery? (I realize this is a bit of a stretch!)

Fennel, medieval drawing
Columbine by Walter Crane from Flora’s Feast (1889)

Columbines are compact, herbaceous, flowering plants belonging to the genus Aquilegia which have long been of interest to both horticulturists and scientists. The existence of numerous species of columbines has made the plant a common choice for performing genetic studies on plant development. Different species of Aquilegia are found primarily in mountainous regions of Europe, Asia and North America. Their flowers are usually brightly colored and each petal is modified to have a tubular outgrowth called the nectar spur. The original meaning of the word Aquilegia was eagle, presumably because in ancient times people thought the flowers looked like the talons of an eagle. However, there have been other symbolic meanings as well. Most importantly for the present discussion, the columbine flower has also been thought to resemble the hat of a court jester, and it is this meaning that Shakespeare presumably had in mind for Hamlet. There are other symbolic meanings as well. The ancient Greeks and Romans attributed the plant to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and for the Victorians the columbine meant “the will to win.”

Columbines have been used in folk medicine in various parts of the world since antiquity for a variety of purposes. The root can supposedly be used for the treatment of diarrhea, stomach aches and uterine bleeding. Mashed fresh roots have traditionally been rubbed on aching, arthritic joints and applied to bee stings and skin sores to relieve pain. A mild decoction of the leaves has been used for sore throats, colds and coughs. A hair wash can be made from the boiled plant. Today, however, the most important thing to note about columbines is that they are quite toxic, particularly the seeds and roots which contain cardiotoxins. It’s not clear what is responsible for these toxic effects except for the observation that the plant contains “cardiotoxic activity,” but the exact identity of the cardiotoxic principle has not been defined.

Rue: Rue refers to the plant Ruta graveolens. Rue was often used as an ornamental plant owing to the color of its blue/green leaves. Rue has a bitter taste and in former times was therefore a symbol of regret and repentance. It is often used to signify this in phrases such as “rue the day.” Ophelia also refers to the plant as “a herb of grace on Sundays.” This was because when entering a church on a Sunday, the wearer dipped his rue in Holy Water—which always stood within the portals—and blessed himself with it hoping to obtain God’s grace or mercy. Rue not only symbolized bitterness but was the major cause of abortion in its day, which is also why it was also associated with adultery. Ophelia keeps a rue flower for herself but also gives one to Gertrude and says that she “must wear her rue with a difference.”Clearly Gertrude’s rue symbolizes something different than Ophelia’s. One might conclude that Ophelia was filled with bitterness due to the awful things Hamlet said to her as well as her father’s death, and that Gertrude’s rue represented adultery.

A “Paradise Garden” illustrating plants including rue (German, 15th century)

As with the other plants we are discussing, rue was formerly used to treat many common human ailments, but modern herbalists now question its effectiveness as well as its safety. In fact, some people who are extremely allergic to rue get blisters and/or a rash from handling the plant, especially on hot days. Consuming large amounts of rue can cause violent stomach pain, vomiting, and convulsions. Obviously pregnant women should never use it.

Rutin

The chemical constituents of rue have been widely studied. Of course, like any plant it contains hundreds of natural products that have interesting chemical structures and which could have interesting effects on humans. Rue is particularly high in alkaloid content which presumably accounts for its bitter taste—alkaloids like strychnine and morphine are always bitter. It is also the original source of the chemical rutin, which was named after the plant and has been investigated for its therapeutic potential. A recent review considered some 50 possible uses for this compound! However, at this point in time, none of these uses are well established.

Daisy: Ophelia then sees an English daisy (Bellis perennis), which represents gentleness, innocence and righteousness—all qualities that she feels have been lost in the court. Ophelia doesn’t actually give the flower to anybody, but instead throws it to the ground. By denying the gift of a daisy, she is basically saying that there is no innocence left in the court. This is her way of expressing how corrupted the royal family has become.

As with the other plants mentioned here, daisies have been widely studied for their chemical composition and therapeutic properties. To this day, extracts of B. perennis are used for bruises, bleeding, muscular pain, purulent skin diseases, and rheumatism. Numerous interesting chemicals have been isolated from the plant, and some—like the perennisosides—are unique.

Lucrezia Borgia holding daisies by Bartolomeo da Venezia (1505)
Perennisosides—unique to the daisy Bellis perennis

Violet: Ophelia is probably referring to the common or English violet (Viola odorata). Ophelia says that she would have brought violets to give to everyone but that they all withered when her father died. Violets are a symbol for faithfulness and fidelity which have obviously been abandoned because of her mother and Hamlet’s lack of faithfulness in love.

The violet is commonly associated with its sweet smell and taste resulting in its use in perfumes and as a flavor in cooking. The fragrance of different flowers is the result of combinations of volatile chemicals (odorants) that are detected by special odorant receptors situated in the nasal epithelium. Binding of an odorant to a particular receptor initiates a pattern of nerve activity that signals to the brain. Different odorants have the ability to activate different combinations of odorant receptors—there are actually hundreds of these. Because the combination of odorant molecules produced by each flower is unique, the pattern of nerve activity they produce is also unique and hence they each have an individual aroma. In the case of violets, their smell is mainly due to the presence of chemicals called ionones, combined with other substances. It is interesting to note that when odorant receptors are activated by ionones, they signal to the brain and then “desensitize,” that is, lose their ability to activate nerves for a period of time. This is a form of cellular forgetfulness or perhaps “faithlessness”—although it is unlikely that Shakespeare was aware of these things when he wrote Hamlet!

Portrait of a man with skull and viola
Workshop of Jan van Scorel (1515)

Flowers also appear again in connection with Ophelia’s ultimate death as Queen Gertrude reports to her brother Laertes,

“There is a willow grows aslant a brook that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. There with fantastic garlands did she come of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do ‘dead men’s fingers’ call them.

There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke, when down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like a while they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued unto that element.

But long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.”

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851)

Finally there is the matter of the death of Hamlet’s father. As the ghost of Hamlet’s father explains to his son,

“Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.”

But what does Shakespeare mean by hebenon? It’s certainly a mystery. Hebenon appears to be a hapax legomenon, that is the only use of this word in the English language. From the spelling of the word, it has been speculated that Shakespeare was referring to either hemlock or henbane—both of which are certainly poisonous. However, the symptoms produced by “hebenon” aren’t really consistent with either of those poisons. The poisonous component of hemlock, which was also used to kill Socrates, is the alkaloid coniine, which is an agonist at nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and can produce paralysis. Henbane produces the alkaloids atropine and scopolamine which are antagonists at muscarinic acetylcholine receptors and can also be very toxic. Both hemlock and henbane have been known for their toxicity since ancient times. The death of Hamlet’s father, however, seems to be associated with the formation of blood clots and presumably a stroke. Some authors have speculated that what Shakespeare had in mind was the Yew tree which is widely distributed in England and is also extremely poisonous. The two cardiotoxins taxine A and taxine B, which interfere with the electrical activity of the heart, are responsible for the poisonous effects of the tree. Ingestion of these substances can result in an arrhythmia and increase the chance of blood clots in the upper chambers of the heart.

Taxine A

The most common complication of blood clots in the heart related to arrhythmias is stroke. Blood clots usually form in the left atrium. If they break off, they will move into the left ventricle and then into the arterial circulation. The anatomy of your arterial system places your brain in a direct path downstream where the clots can easily lodge, interrupting the flow of blood. This kind of symptomology seems better associated with the “curdling” produced by the poison that killed Hamlet’s father. At any rate, Shakespeare remains one of our most interesting sources as to the potential use of natural products around the turn of the 16th century and in ancient times. It is always interesting to try and decipher his particular meaning when he uses different plants in his dramas.