Thomas Bowdler was a physician who lived in the 18th century. He had fond memories of childhood when his father would read him works by Shakespeare. He only realised as an adult that his father had omitted or changed certain parts of stories to make it more “family friendly”. Inspired by this, he created the The Family Shakespeare – an edited version of Shakespeare’s greatest works made appropriate for even children to read.
Examples of changes made include changing exclamations that may be seen as blasphemous, such as “God”, into “heavens”. One interesting example is that the scene in Hamlet where Ophelia dies is portrayed as an accidental drowning, whereas the original alludes to her intending suicide. Some changes were even more dramatic, such as the complete cutting of story arcs involving a prostitute in Henry IV.
Since then, the act of editing something to make it more “appropriate” for a wider audience has been known as bowdlerisation. Although many may see bowdlerising as political correctness, Bowdler’s intentions were to make great works of literature such as Shakespeare more accessible to a broader audience, such as to children.
In theatre, there is a superstition that wishing good luck to an actor or actress brings them bad luck instead. Because of this, theatre cast around all around Europe have traditionally wished bad luck on each other or cursed to counteract this. This superstition is likely the root of the phrase “break a leg”, which is an expression used to wish well for a person who is about to perform. Similar customs are found in other European countries, such as “merde!” in France (meaning “shit”). “Merde” is also used frequently in professional dancing circles, especially ballet dancers.
The exact meaning of the phrase is not known, but there are many theories. The “leg” may be referring to the side curtains of the stage. In the past, actors were not paid unless their act made it onto the stage. Therefore, “breaking” the “leg” – as in stepping past the curtains on to the stage – was an act of success and a guarantee of a paycheck. “Breaking a leg” may be referring to the act of bending one’s leg and bowing – something that is done repeatedly at the end of a show, especially if it was successful. More obscure theories include the story of a famous British actor in the 18th century literally breaking his leg while passionately acting out a scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III.
The plant Mandragora officinarum, more commonly known as mandrake, is a plant that has interested people in various fields throughout history. Firstly, the root is split into two at the end, giving the uprooted plant the appearance of a human being. Secondly, it belongs to the nightshade family, containing plants such as the infamous deadly nightshade (belladonna), tobacco, Datura, petunia, tomatoes and potatoes. Like its relatives the belladonna and Datura, mandrakes contain alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. These substances are potent (and toxic) hallucinogenics and sedatives, which is why they have had various uses ranging from witchcraft to anaesthesia to murder through poisonings.
The shape of the mandrake and its hallucinogenic effects have given it notoriety. Legend goes that when a mandrake root is dug up, it shrieks with such terror that anyone who hears it will die – possibly referring to the toxicity of the alkaloids. Historical texts give detailed instructions on digging up mandrakes by tying a hungry dog to the root and making it pull the plant out of the ground when the owner is out of earshot and he lures the dog with food.
Other folklore suggest that mandrake only grow when the ground is inseminated by semen dripping from a hanged man. This folklore is likely fuelled by the mandrake’s human-like appearance. Ancient and medieval literature associates mandrake being used to make fertility agents and love potions(again, likely related to the hallucinatory, sedative effects). Mandrake is a common ingredient in magic rituals of various kinds, such as in Wiccan rituals.
Alkaloids extracted from mandrake have been used in medicine since the Middle Ages, where extracts were used to anaesthetise patients before surgery, as it has a sedating, hypnotic effect. Eye drops made from mandrake extract were used for hallucinations and mandrake syrups were used to aide sleep. In modern medicine, scopolamine is used in motion sickness patches and atropine is used to speed up the heart rate when it slows too much.
The extensive list of supposed and actual properties of mandrake has made it a popular plant in fiction as well and it can be found in countless works throughout time, such as works of Shakespeare, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K. Rowling.