Who Knew

Who knew Shakespeare may have used a neighbouring garden to satisfy his curiosity about drugs?

In 1602 William Shakespeare rented upstairs rooms on the corner of Silver St and Monkwell St in the City of London. They were rented from one Christopher Mountjoy, a Hugenot refugee who made jewelled headdresses for posh ladies. Silver St was tucked into the top left hand corner of the City just inside the walls. The cross shows the location on the Agas map of 1561 and the latest Google map.

The specific corner has long been obliterated by a combination of WW2 and later planning: the dual carriageway of London Wall runs through it, although there is a small garden marking the area which used to be the churchyard of St Olave, Silver St. (Find out more on my Walking Tour “Secret Gardens, Hidden Churches”: https://whoknewtours.com/tours/secret-gardens-hidden-churches/).

Just across London Wall (behind the concrete walkway you can see above) lies the hall and gardens of the Worshipful Company of Barbers, previously the Barber-Surgeons. Here is the latest hall, built in 1969: the latest to stand on this site since the 1440’s. So it was just a few yards from Shakespeare’s flat.

At exactly this time one John Gerrard was the leading expert in how to use plants in medicine. A gifted surgeon, horticulturalist and botanist he published in 1597 a 1392-page guide, entitled “The Herball or General Historie of Plants”. Here is his picture and everything you always wanted to know about potatoes.

His garden was famous, containing over one thousand plants and attracting many visitors. Many of the recommendations for what to apply or take for various complaints were based on the physical resemblance of plants to the relevant part of the body: the idea being that God had made this a feature of Creation to show man where to look for remedies. Lungwort is a good example: some doctors I took on a Tour recently assured me that this does resemble the shape and spotted appearance of a lung (although not the green colour, I think).

Shakespeare, who lived two minutes walk away from this expert’s garden, shows in many places in his plays and sonnets that he had some knowledge of how some plants worked to poison, heal, render drowsy etc. To take one example from Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence says “Within the infant rind of this weak flower/Poison hath residence and medicine power”: showing knowledge of how a small dose of something can help cure where a larger dose could kill.

You can still go and wander round the Physic Garden within the Barber’s Company gardens (it was restored in the 1990’s). And while there is no proof Shakspeare ever set foot there, I like to imagine him picking John Gerard’s brain and stimulating his imagination for how he could use drugs in his next drama.

%d bloggers like this: