Shakespeare Already Wrote About What Happens When Women Don’t Have Bodily Autonomy

And guess what? It ends badly

Photo by Dalton Smith on Unsplash

I grip the dark vial, hold the measuring spoon out in front of me. “Black Cohosh,” the label reads. I look at my laptop screen.

 Tincture: ¼-1 teaspoon, 3–4 times a day. 

The root is the part used.

My tongue recoils from the bitter taste. I put the dropper back in the bottle and set an alarm to go off every three hours, trying to distract myself from a body buzzing with anxiety. I type and scroll more, reading that despite scientific studies suggesting otherwise, high doses of Vitamin C will also work. I have some on hand, so I choke the chalky pills back in fistfuls.

Please don’t be pregnant, please don’t be pregnant, I chant until my period comes, praying to any god that will listen. 

“There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference,” Ophelia says in act 4 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to no one in particular. In her mad scenes, she gives away flowers: rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbines, and rue. Of them all, she only keeps rue for herself. 

According to John M. Riddle, provoking an abortion was rue’s “most recognized use in classical antiquity and the Middle Ages.”

I like to imagine that, earlier, Ophelia ran her finger down the ledger of a receipt book, coming across a recipe from antiquity under “Rue (ruta graveolens)”:

3 drachmas of rue leaves, 2 drachmas of myrtle, 2 drachmas of laurel, mix with wine.

To bring down the flowers.

A little bit of heaviness lifts, just for a moment, as she closes the book and goes out to the garden.

Please don’t be pregnant, please don’t be pregnant, she prays.

I have been responsible for my fertility since I became sexually active, before Plan B was available over the counter and Abortion on Demand began serving certain states. Unlike the early modern women Ophelia represents, I’ve been able to alter my body’s chemistry. I swallowed hormones at the same time every day. I implanted a device into my arm. I inserted a ring into my vagina. I fought to wrap guys’ dicks up in latex. 

When desperate, though, I looked up herbal remedies for fertility control and unplanned pregnancies—much like people who could get pregnant in early modern England.

I swallowed hormones at the same time every day. I implanted a device into my arm. I inserted a ring into my vagina

I am not the first to argue that Ophelia’s reference to rue suggests an intimate knowledge with fertility control and, consequently, premarital sex. There are a few notes and articles on the topic, vehemently contested by scholars who forget that, while characterizing young women in Shakespeare like Ophelia as virginal, Shakespeare himself walked down the aisle when his wife was three months pregnant. My own experiences with “rue,” however—with herbal abortifacients and the feeling of regret and repentance that accompanies them—are why I noticed that Ophelia keeps some rue for herself in Hamlet, of all her flowers. They’re why I noticed she calls it a “herb of grace,” one promising a kind of divine intervention. They’re why I noticed she says she wears her rue “with a difference.” If we read Ophelia’s trajectory in Hamlet as informed by the threat of an unplanned pregnancy, her desperation becomes more palpable, her flowers more resonant.

Attending to how pregnant people like Ophelia “bring down flowers” in Shakespeare reminds us that people have sought early and late term abortions across time, and that this search is represented in the most canonical of authors, of texts. These “historical touches across time,” to use medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw’s phrase, offer insight into what abortion might’ve been like in Shakespeare’s day. The desperate, panicked search for information, the dark vials containing the promise of a different life, the communities that harbored and disseminated this knowledge—these touches are particularly important in a post Roe v. Wade world, when pregnant people will be forced to turn to the kinds of remedies available before the medicalization of abortion. What’s more, many of us realize that overturning Roe v. Wade is an attempt to revoke people’s—especially young women’s—control over their desires, their bodies, their futures. Ophelia felt the dangers of this enterprise.

Abortion wasn’t illegal in Shakespeare’s England, like it is in some US states today. Historian Carla Spivack argues that abortion before quickening (when a pregnant person first feels their child move) was not even considered a serious moral crime. Abortion was a threat only to the extent it allowed for, or concealed, illicit sex. Alex Gradwohl argues, however, that the rise of Christianity and church teachings to channel desire through reproductive sex and marriage ended the “moral neutrality” found in classical texts regarding abortion. Still, as a method of fertility control for married women, for example, abortion was not even within the purview of the law.

The options for early modern people fearful of an unplanned pregnancy were limited, as they had no access to medical or surgical abortion. In one of the few explicit references to abortion we have from the period, Christopher Marlowe—one of Shakespeare’s rival dramatists—lists off different methods to end a pregnancy in his Elegies 13 and 14 (c.1600). In these poems, the speaker’s beloved, Corinna, “rashly” casts out “her womb’s burden.” “Why with hid irons are your bowels torn? / And why dire poison give you babes unborn?,” the speaker asks, outlining two options to do so. The “hid irons” tearing “bowels” conjures more modern images of wires and coat-hangers—the “dire poison” the herbal remedies people used in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. 

Abortion was a threat only to the extent it allowed for, or concealed, illicit sex.

Scholar Frances Dolan argues that when pregnant people in early modern England “bravely took control of their own fertility” they depended, predominantly, on “traditional knowledge of the herbs in their garden.” Herbal abortion is now steeped in stigma, as journalist Maya Lewis reports, but until the invention of hormonal birth control in the 1960s, and the increase in surgical abortions after Roe v. Wade in the 1970s, it was as good an option as any to end an unwanted pregnancy. Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned, a safe, medical abortion was never a guarantee, especially for low-income individuals without clinics in their vicinity. I certainly did not have hundreds of dollars to spend on an abortion in college. Herbal abortifacients promise a cheaper, more accessible alternative, whether they deliver on this promise or kill you in the process. These herbs—rue, black and blue cohosh root, cotton root bark, mugwort, Queen Anne’s lace, pennyroyal—have been used across time and place, before surgical abortion became legal and safe for some of us.

When I found myself fearful of an unplanned pregnancy, I turned to the internet, but early modern people like Ophelia would’ve turned to receipt books, household books that held medical and cookery recipes, for ways to “bring down the flowers.” In Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene (1609), for example, a young wife asks another whether she has “excellent receipts” to keep herself from bearing children, to which the woman responds, of course she does—how else would she maintain her youth and beauty? “Many births of a woman make her old, as many crops make the earth barren.” As Jonson represents, these recipes were often written by women, passed around within female communities.

As a kind of knowledge production women could participate in and share secrets through, receipt books were threatening to male physicians, who often appropriated knowledge from them for medical texts. Fearful of women having control over their fertility and thus sex lives, physicians like Andrew Boord refused to list certain purgatives in his treatise, The Breviarie of Health (1547), lest any “light woman” willfully use them to induce abortion. Nicholas Culpeper, similarly, admonishes readers in The English Physician or The Complete Herbal (1652), “Give not any of these to any that is with child, lest you turn murderers…willful murder seldom goes unpunished in this world, never in that to come.” 

The garden Eucharius Rösslin references in the very title of Der Rosengarten or The Rose Garden (1513), one of the best-selling gynecological manuals of Shakespeare’s time, is a reference to the “Physique” garden in which midwives grew, nurtured, and gathered herbal remedies such as rue. Rösslin chooses to frame this medical text with a (terrible) poem—a ballad entitled “Admonition to Pregnant Women and Midwives.” The poem knits the pregnant female body with the rose garden, ending with the promised “admonition”: “Such roses which your hands do take / Will come in time before God’s face.” These shrill warnings demonstrate that pregnant people taking their fertility into their own hands using herbs and plants was common practice, despite physicians’ attempts to obscure and police this knowledge.

Receipt books were threatening to male physicians, who often appropriated knowledge from them for medical texts.

In an interview with me, doula and herbalist Chelsea Wall of Black South Apothecary described male physicians’ appropriation of this kind of gynecological knowledge as devastating for patients’ autonomy and a more nuanced understanding of herbs’ relationship to fertility control. Wall had a “constellation of concerns” as an herbalist in a post Roe v. Wade America. From botched and incomplete herbal abortions to the shortage of—even criminalization of—herbs used for other ailments, such as mugwort, to the continued stoking of fears and misinformation about herbalism “planted by history, nurtured by the medical industrial complex.” But Wall was especially concerned with how herbalism continues to be discussed without nuance, either discredited or romanticized. While she unilaterally asserts that “medical abortion is still the best option available” to pregnant people looking for an abortion, Wall lamented the “compartmentalized world view” that makes it difficult for us to accept herbalism at its best, as a set of holistic practices that span history, geographical space, and practitioners who value their patients’ autonomy.

In Shakespeare’s plays, herb-women, hothouse managers, and angry mothers offer a glimpse of what role herbalists like Wall might’ve played in early modern England, those well versed in herbal medicine who valued pregnant people’s autonomy. In Shakespeare, herbalists act as foils to masculine rule—a burgeoning medical industrial complex and misogynist visions of chastity. These female communities have agency over young women’s sexuality that men struggle to match. In Pericles, for example, Shakespeare introduces audiences to a “herb-woman” who runs a brothel, a professional whom a male character says, “sets seeds and roots of shame and iniquity.” This woman is named by Shakespeare for her expertise, a particular way of managing sexually active women. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare goes as far to name a character, an executioner, “Abhorson” and, as scholar Mario DiGangi persuasively argues, the pregnant character Mistress Elbow’s presence in a brothel that doubles as a bathhouse is especially threatening given gynecological manuals’ advice to pregnant people, then and now, to avoid extreme heat as it can cause miscarriage. Shakespeare also makes an explicit reference to abortion in act 4, scene 4 of Richard III, when Richard asks, “Who intercepts me in my expedition,” and the Duchess, his mother, responds, “O, she that might have intercepted thee, / By strangling thee in her accursed womb, / From all the slaughters, wretch, that thou hast done.” These threatening women curse the murderous male children they gave birth to, run brothels and hot houses, and offer alternate avenues away from pregnancy, parenthood, and judgmental male physicians. 

Notably, in Hamlet, Ophelia is completely bereft of this kind of community, the kind of community Wall described in her interview with me and that Hannah Matthews writes about in “Abortion Takes a Village, Too,” the “safe and sustainable communities” that “will keep showing up for one another, no matter what.” 

In Shakespeare, herbalists act as foils to masculine rule—a burgeoning medical industrial complex

In Hamlet, Ophelia’s rue is tangible, both her sorrow and her flowers—perhaps because her entire character is defined in relationship to her chastity. Audiences watch as Ophelia is discarded by the titular character and desperate, “wedged between senior males” to use Coppélia Kahn’s suggestive phrase—men who ventriloquize her desire and her sex life. Her brother, Laertes, waxes for 34 lines in an early scene on why Ophelia must not “unmask her beauty” nor open her “chaste treasure,” her “buttons” or “bud” to Hamlet. Her father enters shortly thereafter and repeats these admonitions. 

Ophelia, to her credit, responds to accusations she is having premarital sex with Hamlet not with assurance and denial, but with complaint of her brother’s hypocrisy: that he not show her the “steep and thorny way to heaven” while he, himself, treads “the primrose path of dalliance.” This wit, her exasperation, here, has been erased over time, in interpretations of her as a delicate, chaste, helpless maiden, paintings of her lily-white body floating dead in flower-filled water, productions that position her as a nonsensical, hysterical subject, an ornament to be pitied. Throughout Hamlet, Ophelia pushes back in subtle ways, suggesting she’s not as “chaste”—in all senses of the word—as her legacy implies.

“To a nunnery go, and quickly too,” Hamlet infamously tells Ophelia—places that housed pregnant maids in early modern England. “Shall I lie in your lap?” he asks her, sexually harassing her during play-within-a-play. Some of the very first words Hamlet speaks about Ophelia in the play are, “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered,” addressing her as a sexualized mythical figure, one who’ll remember his sins in her prayers. 

My own experiences with overbearing authority figures and their hypocritical policing of my desires are how I know how ashamed Ophelia must’ve felt, picking her rue. My own experiences with self-absorbed men, boys like Hamlet—with once-affectionate-suddenly-absent lovers—help me recognize Ophelia’s attempts to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust in the play. They help me recognize her rue, her loneliness, her isolation, her desperation.

Ophelia, to her credit, responds to accusations she is having premarital sex with Hamlet not with assurance and denial, but with complaint of her brother’s hypocrisy

Because of how Ophelia is treated throughout Hamlet, Gertrude’s eventual description of her death—the way Ophelia finally does “bring down the flowers”—is especially devastating. As studies show, adolescent pregnancy is a risk factor for suicide, and though rue is, as a recent medical study by Aref Hoshyari et al. (2014) confirms, an effective abortifacient, it is less effective and far more dangerous than surgical or medical abortion—and can easily end up poisoning a person. The queen tells audiences that Ophelia falls from an “askant” willow tree from which she tried to hang “fantastic garlands.” Her garments, “heavy with drink,” pull Ophelia down to a “muddy death.” When Gertrude describes Ophelia “clambering to hang,…” there is, in this phrase that begins a new line of iambic pentameter, a pause—however brief, enough of a hint that Ophelia might’ve been clambering to hang more than her garlands. Although Gertrude claims Ophelia fell, a Gravedigger later questions Ophelia’s right to a “Christian burial” when she “willfully seeks her own salvation.” 

As Marlowe writes in his abortion poems, “tender damsels do it, though with pain; / Oft dies she that her paunch-wrapt child hath slain.” All circumstances considered, it makes sense that there is no future for Ophelia, or any child she might be carrying, in Denmark, in the poisonous, rotting world Shakespeare creates.

I have often thought about Ophelia’s rue and abortion in Shakespeare’s England in the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. I’ve been thinking about fear, about feeling entirely out of control while attempting to gain what little control I could over my body. I’ve been thinking about the desperation that comes with having nowhere to turn, the desperation I hear in Ophelia’s mad speech—when she keeps some rue for herself. In a post Roe v. Wade world, these feelings will be more widespread, more palpable.

In one way or another, I’ve managed to plan my pregnancies, plan parenthood, over the course of my life.  I can’t speak to the efficacy of any attempt I made with herbs; it was too early to tell what caused the bleeding—and experts warn against these kinds of remedies—but I’ve always found a way out of pregnancy scares. I have yet to find a light relationship to my fertility, however; sometimes it feels like sex is inextricable from fear and anxiety, even if I have far more methods at my disposal than Ophelia did. One thing I know is that, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, my relationship to sex and desire feels heavier. It’s not just that overturning Roe v. Wade will decimate access to safe abortions—it’s that the relationship young people like Ophelia form with desire, sexuality, will be marked by fear. 

I know that the urge to make Shakespeare relevant in any given context is why he continues to take up so much undeserved space in our classrooms, theaters, and cultural imagination. This is far from the first article to put Shakespeare in conversation with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. In a recent Hill article titled “Abortion and the Supreme Court: An American Tragedy,” for example, author Joseph Chamie stages the end of Roe v. Wade as a Shakespearean tragedy, the last act to be decided. “If William Shakespeare were alive today,” Chamie writes, “he would likely write a play about abortion rights and the Supreme Court of the United States.” Alternatively, when cast members from a recent production of As You Like It wanted to speak out outside Roe v. Wade, they received an email from university representatives instructing them not to: “We feel unplanned post-show talks on politics will detract from the work you are doing on telling the stories of William Shakespeare,” it read.

I just add to these conversations that, depending on how you read Hamlet, Shakespeare might’ve already written this play—told this story.

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