Nature 457, 1079 (26 February 2009) | doi:10.1038/4571079d; Published online 25 February 2009

Idea of a love drug was no mystery to Shakespeare

Joan G. Ehrenfeld1

  1. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, SEBS, 14 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901, USA


In his Essay 'Love: neuroscience reveals all' (Nature 457, 148; 2009), Larry Young claims that the biochemical understanding of love is not poetry. But at least one poet, namely William Shakespeare, foretold the application of drugs to manipulate the brain systems associated with pair bonding.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon maintains that topical applications of the juice of the wild pansy (Viola tricolor, called 'love-in-idleness' in the play) "Will make or man or woman madly dote Upon the next live creature that it sees" (Act 2, Scene 1). The potion proves highly effective, supplying much of the humour in the play as Titania falls in love with the donkey-headed Bottom. Shakespeare also suggests that other substances from "Dian's bud" — variously identified as a species of wormwood (Artemisia spp.) or chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus, a species not native to England but long known for its anti-libidinal properties) — could reverse the neurobiological results of the pansy. Perhaps poets have something to teach us about neurobiology and love after all.

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