Will's word

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Medicine (noun) 'drug for treating disease'

The modern sense has been around since the 13th century; but later medicine began to be used for drugs which had other purposes, such as cosmetics, poisons, elixirs, and potions. Shakespeare has the original meaning when Friar Laurence draws a contrast between an effective remedy and its harmful opposite: "Within the infant rind of this weak flowerPoison hath residence, and medicine power" (Romeo and Juliet, II.iii.20). But when Falstaff grumbles about his association with Poins, saying "If the rascal have not given me medicines to make me love him, I'll be hanged" (Henry IV Part 1, II.ii.18), the word means "love potion". And when Gonerill hears that her sister Regan is very ill, and says to herself, "I'll ne'er trust medicine" (King Lear, V.iii.97), she is being ironic (having just poisoned her). Medicine is the Folio reading; the Quarto text is unambiguous: poyson.

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today