The University of Massachusetts Amherst
Section Menu

Five College Renaissance Seminar with Will Steffen

Event Information


650 East Pleasant St.

Date & Time

Feb 16, 2023 | 4:30 pm

Contact Name

Kinney Center for Renaissance Studies



(413) 577-3600

Event Website

Learn more

Will Steffen

'"The Sweet Marjoram of the Salad": Abortifacient Plants and the Shakespearean Bed Trick'

Five College Renaissance Seminar with Will Steffen (American International College)

Both All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure present conception through a bed trick and marriage as the comic solutions to the plays’ underlying problems—Bertram’s wanderlust in All’s Well and the proliferation of bastards in Vienna in Measure for Measure. But in both plays, Shakespeare also gives special though subtle attention to plants known for their abortifacient properties. Scholars have overlooked the importance of abortifacient plants (such as iris, Herb of Grace/rue, sweet marjoram, and myrtle) in presenting alternative solutions to the unsettling marriages presented in these 'problem plays.' This paper will establish a lineage between Shakespeare’s classical sources and his use of bed tricks, which follow Ovid in situating the use- value of abortifacient plants in narratives about sexual violence and trickery. Helena in All’s Well uses a bed trick to secure a husband, but hints that abortifacient plants might be useful for limiting her role in patriarchal reproduction at the same time. Abortifacients in Measure for Measure provide an alternative solution to the problem of proliferating bastards that marriage alone seems unable to contain.

This paper is a continuation of the work begun in my forthcoming book, Anthropocene Theater and the Shakespearean Stage, in that it seeks to emphasize the agency of non-human actants in theatrical networks to showcase ecological solutions to anthropogenic problems.

Will Steffen is an assistant professor of English at American International College in Springfield, MA. He earned his PhD from UMass Amherst in 2018. His dissertation, Globalizing Nature on the Shakespearean Stage, won the J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize at the 2020 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. His forthcoming book, Anthropocene Theater and the Shakespearean Stage, (April 2023, Oxford University Press) positions the early modern stage as a key resource in evaluating the role of human agency in the narrative about global climate change.

This talk is free of charge and open to the public.