Shakespeare in the orchard

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 the bard’s evocative use of the language of fruit

Words: Jane Levi
Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

So we grew together,
Like to a double cherry—seeming parted
But yet an union in partition—
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem

Helena, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 3, scene 2

A fresh summer fruit in its prime, ripe and sweet, with smooth skin and a delectable aroma, seems to have been an irresistible simile for many Elizabethan poets and playwrights, and Shakespeare is no exception. Helena and Hermia’s childhood friendship is beautifully conjured in the image of the two perfect cherries on a single stem—albeit on the brink of rupture as they argue, bewitched and befuddled in the fairy forest.

“And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot”
Jaques, As You Like It, act 2, scene 7

Shakespeare often uses fruits at the other end of their life, dried and withered, to signify the decay and decline of age. Just as Falstaff chides Mistress Quickly telling her: “There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.” (Henry IV part 1, act 3, scene 3) Parolles mocks the wrinkled skin of old women, saying: “Your date is better in your pie and your / porridge than in your cheek.”

He goes on to suggest that Helena’s virginity “is like one of our French / withered pears, it looks ill, it eats drily…” (All’s Well That Ends Well, act 1, scene 1)—a clever dual reference, since fresh pears are the symbolic fruit of St Catherine, the mystical, virginal bride of Christ.

Shakespeare orchard illustration

“When I was last in Holborn,
I saw good strawberries in your garden there.
I do beseech you send for some of them.”

Gloucester/Richard, Richard III, act 3, scene 4

In Renaissance art, the strawberry usually symbolised harmony and nourishment of the soul, so it is rather apt that besides decorating the unfortunate Desdemona’s unlucky handkerchief, they were growing in the Bishop of Ely’s garden—and equally apt that the wicked Gloucester/Richard III doesn’t seem to eat them.

Indeed, fruits and their husbandry often seem to figure in extended images describing misrule. Richard II’s mother overhears ‘Adam’ the gardener likening her son’s profligate and sycophantic courtiers to “dangling apricocks, which, like unruly children, make their sire stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight”, suggesting that a wiser king might have behaved more like the most skilled gardeners, who “at time of year do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees…superfluous branches / We lop away that bearing boughs may live” (Richard II, act 3, scene 4).

Orchards also figure in major events on which the plot turns. Romeo leaps the wall of the Capulets’ orchard to stand for the first time in dazed romanticism under Juliet’s balcony and Hamlet’s father tells him that his uncle administered the fatal poison during his usual afternoon snooze in his orchard (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5).

The fruitier side of fruit always seems to come to the surface, however. On the other side of the Capulet wall from the star-crossed lovers, the audience is treated to Mercutio’s lewd imaginings of what might happen next:

“Now will he sit under a medlar tree, and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids call medlars, when they laugh alone. Romeo, that she were, O, that she were an open et caetera, thou a poperin pear!”
Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet, act 2, scene 1

I’m sure the past and present customers of Borough Market, well educated in historic fruit varieties both then and now, don’t need me to explain exactly what he means.