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1 - Vegetable Virtues

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 October 2023

Susan C. Staub
Affiliation:
Appalachian State University, North Carolina
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Summary

Abstract

Herbal medicine attributes to plants “virtues,” understood as their effects on animal bodies. In early modern English the meaning of the word virtue encompasses positive moral qualities, but also efficacy; in plants that agency may be both deadly and beneficial. This essay reviews how early modern botanical discourse uses virtue to signal plants’ power to influence the world. It then examines how that attribution intersects with a discourse of dynamic human virtue in Shakespeare, including his references to herbal cures as well as explicit references to plant virtues in King Lear, Cymbeline, and Pericles. The final section turns to the more complex relationship of botanical and human virtue in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

Keywords: virtue, plant power, botanical discourse, instability, potential, Medicine

In Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, Michael Marder asks how we can encounter plants as other than human: can we find a way to understand that plants “are capable, in their own fashion, of accessing, influencing, and being influenced by a world that does not overlap the human Lebenswelt but that corresponds to the vegetal modes of dwelling on and in the earth?” He grapples with how plants might escape “the objectifying grasp of metaphysics and its political-economic avatars,” which deny them “the core values of autonomy, individualization, self-identity, originality, and essentiality.” That said, as Marder himself recognizes, limiting oneself to Western metaphysics (as he does) excludes alternative modes of conceiving vegetal life. In particular, Marder does not engage with concepts of plant power intrinsic to premodern natural history and herbal medicine, which attribute “virtues” to plants.

“Virtue” is a complex word, encompassing the more familiar meaning of positive moral qualities, but also the sense of efficacy, both “a power inherent in a thing” or “a capacity for producing a certain effect.” When it comes to connecting virtue to plants, the Oxford English Dictionary narrows the scope to “power to affect the body in a beneficial manner; strengthening, sustaining, or healing power.” However, the OED has missed those texts that tell us that plant “virtue” may be deadly as well as beneficial.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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  • Vegetable Virtues
  • Edited by Susan C. Staub, Appalachian State University, North Carolina
  • Book: Shakespeare's Botanical Imagination
  • Online publication: 17 October 2023
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9789048551101.003
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  • Vegetable Virtues
  • Edited by Susan C. Staub, Appalachian State University, North Carolina
  • Book: Shakespeare's Botanical Imagination
  • Online publication: 17 October 2023
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9789048551101.003
Available formats
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To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Vegetable Virtues
  • Edited by Susan C. Staub, Appalachian State University, North Carolina
  • Book: Shakespeare's Botanical Imagination
  • Online publication: 17 October 2023
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9789048551101.003
Available formats
×