Apr 02 2014

Mandrakes and Madness

Published by at 12:36 am under Uncategorized

FERDINAND. I have this night digged up a mandrake.

CARDINAL.                                                                       Say you?

FERDINAND. And I am grown mad with’t. (2.5.1-2)


DUCHESS.                               Come, violent death –

Serve for mandragora to make me sleep. (4.2.226-27)

Practical advice for when you find yourself by a gallows in the dead of night with a yen to dig up large roots: don’t. Renaissance superstitions about the mandrake abound and contradict one another. The mandrake was said to grow under the gallows, to feed on blood, and to utter a shriek when pulled from the ground that could kill or madden those who heard it. And yet it was also used in amulets to avert misfortune. In part, those past peddlers of ghoulish mysteries drew on a perceived resemblance between the mandrake root and the human body, one somewhat exploited by the artist of the picture below:

In my quest for knowledge about the mandrake, I perused many images, and I will admit that one was definitely creepy. I have chosen not to share that image in an effort to preserve others from the dreams of fiendish roots that I am sure will now haunt me. The exact shape of the mandrake varies. The picture below reminds me of a mini squid monster:

Should you wish to add the mandrake to your own collection of herbal remedies, you should know that it has been used variously as a hallucinogenic, anesthetic, aphrodisiac, emetic, and sleep aid—the use that the duchess invokes above. (I beg to add that I cannot vouch for any of these applications.) It belongs to the same family as belladonna, and you might also use it to poison your enemy/friend/lover/relative—but you would probably encounter difficulty convincing your victim to ingest the quantity that it would take.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

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