Possets, drugs, and milky effects: A look at recipes, Shakespeare’s plays, and other historical references

Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to food and cookery, but they’re not always very appetizing. In Hamlet, the ghost of elder Hamlet describes the effect of the poison that Claudius pours into his ears, how it winds its way through the veins of his body and suddenly “doth posset / And curd, like eager droppings into milk, / The thin and wholesome blood” (1.5.68-80). But what does it mean for something to posset and curd? And why would Shakespeare want to describe the congealing of blood in these kinds of terms?

What is posset?

Posset is a drink similar to our modern eggnog. It is made by pouring heated and spiced cream over a warm mixture of eggs, sugar, and alcohol. The result is a rich custard full of calories and fat that can sometimes curdle. This, in part, may explain why the earliest use of the word is a fifteenth century translation of Latin balducta or bedulta, i.e., “the curds of milk” (OED).

posset recipe
This recipe for posset comes from Mary Baumfylde’s Medicinal and Cookery Recipes (c.1626, call number: V.a.456). Like in most posset recipes, the egg and cream mixtures are prepared separately, then the cream is poured over the eggs while still hot.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, posset was a common feature of everyday life. It appears in many print and manuscript recipe books from the period and often in multiple variations. No recipe is standard, so a lot of intuitive or preferential knowledge went into the drink’s creation. Some recipes expect it to curdle, others do not. Some require sack or other fortified wines; others use ale. “Posset ale,” the ale left behind after removing the curds from a posset, is even a common starter for many recipes from the period.

posset recipe
This recipe “ffor sore eyes” begins with posset ale,“the curde being clene scumed of,” to which is added wood betony. The mixture should be sodden “if it be a pinte to the halfe” and drank before bed. If a patient’s eyes are red or runny, then the herb is applied to the nape of the neck with a warm, but not wet, cloth (from Certain profitable and well experienced collections for making conserve of fruits . . . as also of surgery, approved medicines, call number: V.a.364).

Posset as medicine

Due to its richness, the drink’s earliest imbibers believed it was “strengthening” and frequently used it as a medicine. Records from the fifteenth century maintain that posset should be taken for medicinal purposes; for example, John Russell’s compilation of household practices, Boke of Nurture (c. 1475), notes that “þe possate” and similar dishes, such as milk, cream, and curds, “close a mannes stomak”.

recipe book
This manuscript Receipt Book (c. 1600, call number: V.a.140) lists several medicines for plagues. Here, the compiler notes that every morning they give their patient “the quantety of a large filbert or litel nutmeg of this mixture and cause them to drinke a draught of posset drinke after it with good store of sorel boiled in it”.

In addition to being beneficial for the digestion, posset was also believed to increase libido. In John Marston’s The Malcontent (c. 1603), the duke, Malevole, disguises himself and asks his wife’s ladies how the Duchess handles having an older husband. He really wants to know whether she drugs him with aphrodisiacs, but in the course of his questioning we also learn that Maquerelle, one of the elderly members of court, feeds the young courtiers a special posset that features three layers of curds. The recipe contains thirty-seven egg yolks, the juice of cocksparrow bones, the syrup of Ethiopian dates, and candied Indian eryngo (the root of sea holly) all “stewed” over precious minerals, such as pearl powder from America and “lambstone” from Russia (2.4.7-14). Curiously, there’s no alcohol or cream.

Unlike Maquerelle’s posset, extant recipes in manuscript and print are relatively simple to follow, but they also required fine imports like spices and fortified wines. Nevertheless, the number of times posset is referenced in drama and the innumerable recipes we have from the period show us that it was consumed in virtually every level of society, with some of the most expensive ingredients being substituted for less expensive ones (i.e., ale for sack). Possets would also be given in charity to the poorest members of society, so everyone would have drunk a lot of it in their lifetime.

Posset, poison, and witchcraft

Whereas Marston notes posset as an aphrodisiac and cure for impotence, other contemporary sources, like household companions, medical tracts, and midwifery manuals, categorize it as a restorative, a cure for the plague, a hangover preventative, a digestif, a delicacy, and, perhaps more importantly for Shakespeare, a sleeping pill.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous possets are those drugged by Lady Macbeth for Duncan’s “surfeited grooms”. This specific moment in Macbeth parallels the elder Hamlet’s posseted blood in surprising ways. Both evoke a commonplace delicacy that often involves sleep; the latter is even given during sleep, while the former induces it. Both subsume the language of housewifery; Claudius’s posset is domestic in its milky effects, while Lady Macbeth’s offering of the possets to Duncan’s guards is consistent with her role as hostess. Moreover, Shakespeare’s possets specifically sit at an odd intersection between poison and panacea. They are surprisingly demonic—Claudius acts “with witchcraft of his wits,” (1.5.50) and Lady Macbeth’s soporifics blur the distinction between life and death (2.2.7-10).

In Marston’s The Malcontent, Maquerelle chastises the young ladies at court who think her posset is only an aphrodisiac. In accordance with the medicinal recipes of the time, Maquerelle says that posset “purifieth the blood, smootheth the skin, enliveneth the eye, strengtheneth the veins, mundifieth the teeth, comforteth the stomach, fortifieth the back, and quickeneth the wit” (2.4.17-20). Yet she goes on to admit that its primary effect is cosmetic; it preserves beauty, something that was considered a form of witchcraft in the period. So, is this posset an aphrodisiac, an anti-aging formula, or a magical charm? Marston never tells us, but he, like Shakespeare, specifies what posset absolutely is: a drug.

Treatise against witchcraft
Henry Holland’s A treatise against vvitchcraft (1590, call number: STC 13590) is a dialogue between the god-loving ‘Theophilus’ and his devil-hating friend, ‘Mysodaemon’. The treatise forwards a Calvinist perspective against folk magic and critiques much of the skepticism Reginald Scot presents in the Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). Here, Theophilus and Mysodaemon debate the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew mecasephath as φάρμακος (pharmakos), a poisoner, and φαρμακεία (pharmakeia), the use of drugs or poisons. Mysodaemon, who clearly has read Scot, argues that the word means poisoner, not witch, and that the law established in Exodus 22:18 must actually be a prohibition against poisoners, not witches. Theophilus asserts that since witches most commonly kill by using drugs and poisons, as Satan teaches them, both meanings of the word apply.

Evil became dangerously familiar in the early modern period as people grew increasingly more apprehensive of the domestic space and the crimes committed within it. In the early modern period, a drug was understood to be much more than an organic or inorganic substance that alleviated a disease. The OED tells us a “drug,” while always linked to pharmacy, could be understood as simultaneously a poison or sedative and a medicinal ingredient such as tea, achiote, and chocolate. Thomas Elyot even links drugs with the burgeoning “traffyke of spyce” in his Castel of Helthe (1539).

In both of Shakespeare’s examples, as well as Marston’s, we can see that posset sits at an uncomfortable intersection between comestible and toxin. These possets blur the lines between a medicine that is health-giving and something akin to witchcraft, never quite settling on one or the other. That all three are in one form or another “drugs” aligns with the early modern anxieties over women’s domestic knowledge and their purported propensity for witchcraft. As the proverb goes, “God sends meate, and the devill sends cookes”.

Photo by Khristian Smith

Recipe: “My Lord of Carlile’s Sack-posset”

The following historical recipe comes from Sir Kenelm Digby’s The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (1669, call number: 149- 218q).

Take a Pottle of Cream, and boil in it a little whole Cinnamon, and three or four flakes of Mace. To this proportion of Cream put in eighteen yolks of Eggs, and eight of the whites; a pint of Sack; beat your Eggs very well, and then mingle them with your Sack. Put in three quarters of a pound of Sugar into the Wine and Eggs with a Nutmeg grated, and a little beaten Cinnamon; set the basin on the fire with the wine and Eggs, and let it be hot. Then put in the Cream boyling from the fire, pour it on high, but stir it not; cover it with a dish, and when it is settled, strew on the top a little fine Sugar mingled with three grains of Ambergreece, and one grain of Musk, and serve it up.

For a modern variation, you’ll need:

30 fl oz heavy cream
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1 whole nutmeg, grated
6 egg yolks
3 egg whites
1 cup of sherry or Madeira (for an alcohol-free posset, try citrus juices)
½ cup of raw sugar

Bring the cream and spices to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Keep the cream warm on a very low setting and remove the cinnamon sticks.

Whisk the yolks, whites, and sugar together in another saucepan. Add the sherry and bring to a simmer while constantly stirring; do not let it boil. Once simmering, turn down the heat and pour the cream into the egg, sugar, and sherry mixture from as high as your arm will go, whisking continuously. Posset should begin to thicken but shouldn’t curdle.

Quickly remove from heat and serve warm with raw sugar and grated nutmeg on top.

Suggested Reading:

Katherine A. Armstrong, “Possets, Pills and Poisons: Physicking the Female Body in Early Seventeenth-Century Drama,” Cahiers Élisabéthains 61:1, May 2002.

Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700, Cornell University Press, 1994.

Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, Yale University Press, 2016.

Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, W.W. Norton, 1998.

Elaine Leong, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England, The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Tanya Pollard, Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Catherine E. Thomas, “Toxic Encounters: Poisoning in Early Modern English Literature and Culture,” Literature Compass 9:1, 2012.