What modern medicine can learn from Shakespeare’s witches

On Halloween, I often think of Shakespeare’s potions and poisons. These herbal concoctions made for intriguing plot devices in his plays. They also reflect the sophisticated medical knowledge of people in the Elizabethan era.

And they’re also a sad reminder that herbal medicine was once mainstream.

In Shakespeare’s time, “wise women” passed down folk remedies from generation to generation. They grew gardens of medicinal herbs, which is why Shakespeare’s audiences — from the balconies to the “pit” below the stage — understood the basic properties of these plants.

In fact, Shakespeare often made mention of well-known folk remedies…

Ophelia’s bouquet, as you may recall, contained rosemary “for remembrance.” Shakespeare would not be surprised to learn that modern studies show that this herb benefits cognition and memory.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tatiana, queen of the fairies, has four followers named for common household herbal and natural remedies of the time: Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, and Peaseblossom.

Before deciding to place a love potion in her eyes, Oberon observes Tatiana, sleeping on a river “bank where the wild thyme blows; where oxlips and the nodding violet grows; quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine; with sweet musk roses, and with eglantine.”

Of course, one of the most famous Shakespearean potions appears in the cauldron of the three witches of Macbeth. The witches pronounce aloud their dark ingredients for their “charm of powerful trouble:”

“Double, double, toil and trouble…

In the cauldron boil and bake

Eye of newt and toe of frog…

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf

Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf

Of the ravined salt-sea shark

Root of hemlock digged in the dark.”

These were all common ingredients, except perhaps for the dragon’s scale. Though, in Shakespearean England, they actually knew of Jurassic dinosaur fossils and Ice Age “dragon bones.” Most people thought the fossils had magical and medicinal properties.

At this time, they also actively traded dried mummy dust from Egypt, which people believed also had medicinal uses. And perhaps it did, in a way. You see, as documented in my 1991 book, Post-Mortem Change in Human and Animal Remains: A Systematic Study, ancient Egyptian mummies were prepared with frankincense (boswellia) and other dried aromatic resins and spices. Today, we have scientific evidence that these spices have potent health properties.

But what about the rest of the witches’ potion?

Well, sharks live long lifespans free of chronic diseases. And frog skins contain many active biologic compounds. I’ve even seen them used in China as a treatment for liver cancer.

And, of course, hemlock harks back to ancient Greece in the time of Socrates, who was forced to drink it for telling the truth one time too many. (I’m still writing because I have not been forced to drink hemlock — yet.)

How to avoid a winter of discontent

Two years ago, I jokingly suggested that Shakespeare’s witches’ brew resembles today’s making of the influenza vaccine. But, really, the witches’ brew has far more potential to benefit health than the flu shot.

Each year, around Halloween, the CDC begins to relentlessly connive, plot, and scheme to stick you with another one of their largely useless and dangerous concoctions. They even try to pay you to get it. But my longtime advice stands: Avoid the CDC’s flu vaccines.

Instead, boost your immune system with a daily, high-quality vitamin B complex, along with 10,000 IU of liquid vitamin D. And if you feel a cold or flu coming on, take 300 to 400 mg each of echinacea (purple coneflower — a Native American remedy), goldenseal, and elderberry extract supplements. Or brew the plants together into a tea.

You can also scrub away germs and viruses by washing your hands frequently. If soap and water aren’t available, sanitize with an alcohol-based product that doesn’t contain toxic triclosan.

And as the nights grow long, cool and dark, check out Shakespeare for more literary — and medicinal — references.  Happy Halloween.