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3 Oct 2014
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rose Shakespeare's Love Potion

By Edward Main
If your letterbox is unlikely to be overflowing with Valentine's cards you might be advised to look to the classics for help.

To mark its new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned scientists to try to recreate the love potion described in that most popular of the Bard's comedies.

The claims that Shakespeare makes for this aphrodisiac perfume would certainly appear to offer hope to the perpetually dateless.

In the play, Oberon uses the flower-based elixir to bewitch Titania, Queen of the Fairies, to fall in love with the tailor Bottom who has magically developed a donkey's head.

But what was it made from? The task of answering that question fell to Dr Charles Sell, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and an expert on the science of smell and taste.

"This was a fascinating project on which to work," he says. "There are scores of references to plants and herbs in Shakespeare, who was obviously very knowledgeable about their real and mythical potency."

The resulting liquid, with the working name of Puck's Potion, is based upon the text in which Oberon says:

"Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew'd thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees."

Dr Sell says that "Love in Idleness", was the name of a popular herbal remedy derived from the plant Viola Tricolor, which is also known as 'Heart's Ease'.

The medicinal properties of the herb have caused it to be used as a folk remedy for asthma, epilepsy, bronchitis and various other ailments and diseases of the heart, hence the name "Heart's Ease" (i.e. mends the heart).

However, the potential romance-inducing properties of this herb are not obvious. The plant has a wintergreen odour, but is not a flower that is used by the fragrance industry.

So to pep up the potion Dr Sell used a little artistic licence. He added the fragrance of two other flowers which are recorded as growing in the bower where Titania sleeps: sweet musk roses and another variety of violet, Viola Odorata also known as Sweet Violet.

The final result allegedly "starts with sparkling notes to ignite fiery love; with the bright effervescence of luminous Tangerine, combined with the zest of fresh Bergamot. Then the blend of spices such as White Pepper and Clove combine with the sparkling citrus bringing a sexy top to the fragrance, reinforcing its seductive character."

But does it work? Dr Sell admits he hasn't noticed any dramatic increase in amorous activity.

And he has one more word of caution for any of the lovelorn who are still tempted to give it a try. Oberon may deploy the potion by dropping it onto the eyelids of the sleeping Titania - but the advice from the scientists is: don't try this at home!

Dr Sell adds: "Of course, nobody should put a fragrance on eyelids and we would stress the hazards of doing that. However, it will be interesting to see what kind of effect the perfume might have when applied to the nape of the neck or décolleté."

Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Society of Chemistry
Shakespeare Online

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