Bonnie Lander Johnson is a CRASSH Early Career Fellow in Michaelmas 2016.

Blood and Earth: Shakespeare’s Apothecarist Language in the mid-1590s

Since antiquity, the earth has been presented in literature as a source of knowledge, and early modern drama frequently attests to the historical belief that blood was the most sure location of the truth: the truth of an individual’s personal and emotional plight, but also the more complex moral and existential truth which the drama of the period sought to articulate through the nexus of its symbolic imagery and figurative language. To date, little attention has been paid to the significance of uniting the two images. The earth soaked in human blood was a sign of human mortality returning to its fleshly source, of ‘dust to dust’, and of the cyclical nature of generation. In Shakespeare’s usage, the combining of these two truth-speaking elements takes on the symbolic and mystical power of a secret knowledge which the plays’ characters seek to unlock but which proves instead to always confound and control them. My approach to these plays extends thinking on Cruentation (truth-speaking blood) to ask how the bloody earth ‘speaks’ the deepest and most secret knowledge embedded in Shakespeare’s mid-1590s work through the language of gardeners and apothecaries.

The research outlined here is in development as a core chapter of my monograph on blood, medicine, and the theatre. A smaller section of this work (solely on Romeo and Juliet) will be included in my forthcoming edited collection Blood Matters. For my CRASSH Fellowship, I want to situate the ideas above within the professional conditions surrounding Shakespeare’s theatre in order to investigate the significance of the Gardener and apothecaries through analysis of their real historical counterparts.


Bonnie received her BA and MA from Sydney and Melbourne Universities before coming to Oxford on a Clarendon scholarship for her DPhil. She  taught briefly at Oxford before taking up a Lectureship and Fellowship at Selwyn, where she is Director of Studies, and an Affiliated Lectureship at the English Faculty. Her research interests cover Shakespeare; Ford; Milton; genre; early modern medical, theological, and political history; court masques; Tudor and Stuart Petrarchism; Victorian Arthurianism; gender; material cultures; English performance of all kinds; and the novel. Her current interest is early modern thinking on blood: She is convening The Blood Conference at Oxford in 2014, which is part of a larger and ongoing interdisciplinary project: The Blood Project. The monograph emerging from this new interest is a study of early modern theories of genre’s effect on the blood, the role of the theatre space in England’s physiological and spiritual healthcare, and the theological and medical background to our transition from the theatre as the central mode of popular entertainment to the novel. Her publications include ‘Interpreting the Person: Tradition, Conflict, and Cymbeline’s Imogen,’ Shakespeare Quarterly 59:2 (2008), 156-184.


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