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Shakespeare's Favourite Flowers: The Poppy

Librarian Mareike Doleschal explores the history of the poppy in Tudor and Victorian England.

Mareike Doleschal

Shakespeare mentions the poppy only once. In Othello, Iago links poppies with mandragora, a pain-relieving plant that doesn’t cause loss of consciousness. Iago’s above line (Othello, Act 3 Scene 3) is addressed to Othello. He has succeeded in upsetting Othello so much that sleep seems impossible. Not even one of the most powerful sleep-inducing drugs can bring him relief.

Poppies have long provided the source for opium. During Shakespeare’s time, opium was a staple in any doctor’s practice. Doctors used the drug to treat a range of ailments, including insomnia, diarrhoea, cholera and period pains. The herbalist John Gerard describes the many benefits of the flower, such as the plant’s ability to “provoke sleep.”[1] Gerard warns that taking too much opium can cause death. Juice created from crushing the leaves can even cure a disease of the eye called Argema and remove warts.

Poppies in Gerard's Herbal (1633)

In Romeo and Juliet, the potion that Friar Lawrence prepares for Juliet might include opium. According to his description of the potion’s side effects, it induces a death-like sleep that lasts “two and forty hours”[2], but from which Juliet will “awake as from a pleasant sleep.”[3] Friar Lawrence is fully aware of the dangers and advantages of the poppy. In another speech, he talks about the flower’s rind, which contains both poison and medicine. Its pleasant smell induces positive feelings but tasting it can cause death.

Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power,
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.”[4]

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

As Friar Lawrence and Iago show, Shakespeare was very much aware of the drug’s power on a person’s mood and behaviour. While opium was already a well-known drug during Shakespeare’s time, the use of opium skyrocketed in the Victorian age and, due to its affordability, played an important part in the life of a Victorian. In 19th century England, laudanum, which consisted of opium and alcohol, was seen as the go-to medicine and marketed particularly at women. Called “women’s best friend”[5] and “mother’s best friend”[6], doctors prescribed it to treat “women’s troubles”[7] and for tranquillizing children and babies. Laudanum addicts experienced withdrawal symptoms that could include depression, nausea, diarrhoea, aches and cramps.

Where were poppies cultivated? There were attempts to cultivate poppies in England, but the climate wasn’t warm enough. India, under colonial rule, was the chief source of opium production. Approximately 1.3 million peasant households in northern India were forced to cultivate the poppy. According to Rolf Bauer, Professor of economic and social history at the University of Vienna, the “poppy was cultivated against a substantial loss. These peasants would have been better without it.”[8] The farmland, 400,000 acres of fertile land, could have been used instead to provide food for malnourished Indians.[9] But why did the British force Indian farmers to cultivate poppies? During the 19th century, the demand for Chinese goods, such as silk, china and tea grew, but China, a self-sufficient country, did not need British goods. In 1780 Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of British India, came up with the cunning plan to smuggle the highly addictive drug into China, thus redressing the imbalance in trade and creating 12 million opium addicts in China.[10] By the 1830s, 80 percent of men under the age of forty were opium addicts. When the Chinese Emperor Dao Guan, whose three sons died of opium addiction, ordered his people to destroy the opium stocks, the British responded by declaring the first of two wars, known as the “opium wars.” In China, the time of the wars and opium addiction is referred to as the “century of humiliation.”

A poppy in Giraud's book The Flowers from Shakespeare (1845)

In 19th century India, Bombay was the commercial capital and chief seaport for the poppy trade with China. The brother of Victorian artist Jane Elizabeth Giraud (1810-1868) lived there, working as a doctor. When Giraud published her book The flowers of Shakespeare (1845), she included an illustration of a poppy. The little flower must have reminded her brother not only of the plants of his homeland but also the poppy fields in India.

The poppy never reached the heights of popularity with the public as some other flowers did, but Victorian artists, like Giraud, enjoyed including the flower in their works. In the Pre-Raphaelite painting, Death the Bride (1894/95), artist Thomas Cooper Gotch depicts a black-veiled young woman, a “bride”, walking through a field of poppies, creating an association of the flower (and the young woman) with allure and death.

Giraud accompanies her poppy with Friar Lawrence description of the little flower’s dual nature, poison and medicine. The artist could have chosen the poppy quote from Othello, but perhaps Giraud was more interested in highlighting the dangers of the drug and was even part of a growing anti-opium movement.

We will never know for sure, of course, but as this blog has shown, there is a lot more to the history of this little flower than being a symbol for fallen soldiers.


[2] Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet
[3] Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet
[4] Shakespeare, William: Romeo and Juliet
[9] Tharoor, Shashi: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, page 227

[All websites accessed 17th of May 2021]

Tharoor, Shashi: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. Penguin Books, 2016.

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