What Plants Say

July 15th, 2011

I loved the report on Professor of English Jean Feerick's innovative English class, Eco-Shakespeare ("Greening Shakespeare," Elms, May/June). If I could do it all over again, I'd sign up. My first exposure to Shakespeare's knowledge of plants came from Lucile Newman '51, a retired Brown professor of community health and anthropology who once handed me "Ophelia's Herbal," a 1979 article she'd published that described the famous list of herbs that Ophelia recites before drowning.

In her article, Dr. Newman mentions that every one of those herbs was an abortifacient or emmenagogue. Because she learned this by reading sixteenth-century herbals in British libraries, she surmised that Shakespeare and his audience would have known the planned-parenthood aspects of these plants, knowledge lost on audiences today. Her botanical reading of Ophelia, in other words, suggests that maybe Ophelia was pregnant rather than mad.

Indeed, when Dr. Newman went to publish her article back in the 1970s, not long after Roe v. Wade, she encountered deep resistance from Shakespeare scholars, all of whom passed on publishing it. She ended up placing her findings in the New York Botanical Garden's Economic Botany journal, far from the eyes of most Shakespeare scholars, but I suspect not so far from those of Dr. Feerick's students.

Liza Bakewell '83 AM, '91 PhD


The writer is director of The Mesolore Project at Brown, which concentrates on the research and pedagogy of Mesoamerica.

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July/August 2011