Originally composed for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Beyond Shakespeare blog, this primary source highlight from Lucy Mookerjee, a Research Fellow at the Folger, invites the reader to think beyond the study the recipe as a set of instructions to be performed, and to consider the recipe itself as a generative composition with much to tell us about origin and loss, remembrance and ignorance, revival and rebirth.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies,
that’s for thoughts.William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5
On learning of her father’s death, Ophelia, the heartbroken heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, falls into a “weeping brook” and quietly allows herself to drown (4.7). While modern scholarship has tended to construe Ophelia as ‘feminist heroine’; critics in the Victorian period perceived Ophelia as a deranged ‘madwoman’; not only has she lost her father and her lover, but she has also lost her mind. In the words of Hamlet’s mother, she is “incapable of her own distress” which is to say: she has forgotten her ‘self’ (4.7). It is curious, then, that the “sweet flowers” – pansies, forget-me-nots, rosemary sprigs –which surround her in the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, and which are frequently referenced in the play, should have a long history as symbols not of loss, but of memory.
The term pansy comes from the French pensée, meaning “thought” or “remembrance”. Legend has it that forget-me-nots are named after a medieval knight who died while picking the delicate flower for his lover and spent his last breath crying out: “Forget me not!” In Ancient Greece, students wore circlets of rosemary to school to increase their capacity to remember their lessons.
While memory-enhancing herbs have a rich legacy in symbolism, the evidence of herbal consumption – though less studied – is well represented in the historical record. Recipes for memory-boosters surface in early modern manuscripts in the form of charms, spells, and medical treatises. Hundreds of these recipe books — digitized and transcribed into Modern English — can be found here.
The Receipt Book of Margaret Baker (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.619), compiled in 1675, contains a recipe for a memory-potion called “Confect of Coriander Seed” and provides step-by-step instructions for a brew to “helpe the memorie … by comforting of the braine.”