Shakespeare in the kitchen garden

Categories: History of food

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sometime resident of Southwark. Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores what the bard had to say about vegetables

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.”
Iago, Othello, act 1, scene 3

Shakespeare’s London was a growing metropolis, but it was also a verdant place filled with market gardens supplying local produce all the year round to the city’s inhabitants. By the 1570s Southwark had a thriving market gardening industry, a significant proportion of it around St George’s Southwark, close to today’s market. Through the use of skilfully constructed hot beds and the placement of glass cloches and woven shades these gardens produced an astonishing array of varieties of vegetable and salad, even in the coldest winter months. The truth (at least in gardening terms) of Iago’s simile – that we ourselves can choose what to plant and how to tend it - could be readily seen in the year-round work taking place in the gardens close to Shakespeare’s theatres.

Because cookbooks tend to contain fewer recipes for vegetables than other dishes, we often make the mistake of thinking that our forebears ate very few of them other than onions and roots. But there was a thriving exchange of seeds, plants and growing techniques between Britain and the continent, and the sheer range of varieties on offer in early seed catalogues makes the selection usually on offer in our standard grocers seem very limited.

“Even such delight
Among fresh fennel buds shall you this night
Inherit at my house.”

Capulet, Romeo and Juliet, act 1, scene 2

Then, as now, the sweeter, more fragrant vegetables growing above the ground were highly valued, with Capulet likening the young women of his household, especially his daughter Juliet, to a fresh fennel bud. Even Falstaff, usually all too ready with a vegetable-related insult, recognises fennel as a more effete, gentlemanly vegetable, when he jealously recounts the reasons Prince Henry loves Poins—including that he “eats conger and fennel”, a reflection of a “weak mind and an able body”.

“Lovers, make moan: His eyes were green as leeks.”
Thisbe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 5, scene 1

Often, though, vegetables are the subject of ribaldry and humour in Shakespeare. Thisbe’s delightfully absurd line perfectly reflects the ludicrous ‘tragedy’ performed by Bottom’s players—although the furious Fluellen in Henry IV Part 2, forcing Pistol to eat a raw leek and threatening him with another if he refuses to take his punishment might feel differently. After all, as he puts it, “if you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek”.

The fiery properties of alliums, especially raw ones were, of course, well known, and Bottom warns his players not to eat any onions and garlic before their play, “for we are to utter sweet breath” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 4, scene 2). In drama, onions often appear as a simile for tears, fake and real, comic (Taming of the Shrew) and tragic (Antony and Cleopatra); fake or real. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Lafeu sums this duality up nicely: “Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon.”

But for sheer vegetable garden-related rudeness we must leave the last word to Falstaff, whose savage character assassination of Justice Shallow—mainly criticised for his thinness and his lechery—refers us to the parsnip-like mandrake root, said to scream as it was plucked from the ground and endowed with many mystical properties, including being an aphrodisiac:

“When he was naked, he was for all the world like a forked radish with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife.”
Falstaff, Henry IV Part 2, act 3, scene 2.

No matter the perfection of the vegetable grown by the gardener, or the skill of the carver, it’s difficult to imagine anyone feeling flattered by being likened to a vegetable sculpture, even if Shakespeare wrote the lines.