Today’s Nature has a fascinating letter from ecologist Joan Ehrenfeld who notes that Shakespeare describes how potions made from certain psychoactive plants were used to encourage reluctant lovers in one of his most famous plays.
Ehrenfeld is riffing on a recent Nature feature article that discussed the neuroscience of love, which seems to have been made open-access.
In his Essay ‘Love: neuroscience reveals all’ (Nature 457, 148; 2009), Larry Young claims that the biochemical understanding of love is not poetry. But at least one poet, namely William Shakespeare, foretold the application of drugs to manipulate the brain systems associated with pair bonding.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon maintains that topical applications of the juice of the wild pansy (Viola tricolor, called ‘love-in-idleness’ in the play) “Will make or man or woman madly dote Upon the next live creature that it sees” (Act 2, Scene 1). The potion proves highly effective, supplying much of the humour in the play as Titania falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom. Shakespeare also suggests that other substances from “Dian’s bud” ‚Äî variously identified as a species of wormwood (Artemisia spp.) or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, a species not native to England but long known for its anti-libidinal properties) ‚Äî could reverse the neurobiological results of the pansy. Perhaps poets have something to teach us about neurobiology and love after all.