Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shakespeare's Apricocks

Shakespeare’s natural world has been much commented upon over the centuries.  As in so many matters, his grasp of gardening, in particular, has been declared at times to be exceptional.  One popular 19th century commentator even went so far as to assert that he must surely have worked as a gardener at some point during his youth.

While he may never have been a gardener, he does seem more than superficially knowledgeable about the gardens of his day.  One detail of such matters that he got wrong, however, is as much to the point as any.  In Richard II the Duke of York’s gardener and his helper have a conversation which includes the following (iii.4.30-37):

Gardiner.
Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.

It was Shakespeare’s habit to bring in common folk, of this sort, for comic relief and/or information.  These get off easily compared to most.  They’ve been brought in simply to give excuse for a series of gardening metaphors.

What Shakespeare got wrong here, is that there were no apricot trees in England in the 14th century.  While it is unlikely that the playwright was particular about such anachronisms, we as readers are a bit richer for this one.  For not only were there no apricots in the garden of the Duke of York but there were no apricots in any gardens at least until the 1520s.  Even then it is an educated guess that the trees were first introduced into England through the gardens of Henry VIII.[1]  The first certain mention of the tree in the country is found in 1548, in William Turner’s The Names of Herbs.

Malus armeniaca is called in Greeke, Melea armeniace, in highe duche Land ein amarel baume, in the dioses of Colo kardumelker baume, in frëch Vng abricottier, and some englishe më cal the fruite au Abricok. Me thynke seinge that we haue very fewe of these trees as yet, it were better to cal it, an hasty Peche tree because it is lyke a pech and it is a great whyle rype before the pech trees, wherfore the fruite of thys tree is called malum precox. There are in Colö great plentie of hasty peche trees.[2]

The “we haue very fewe of these trees as yet” makes clear that the tree was still rare in 1548.


In fact, the apricot tree and its fruit would not become common until the reign of Charles I, when a new variation was brought back to England by the famous botanist John Tradescant (the Younger).  John Marston would mention the fruit in a play[3] early in the century but he was so smitten with the plays of Shakespeare, and borrowed so much from his master, that we do not have any reason to feel confident he’d ever actually seen the tree.  The first mention of the fruit in a major play seems to have been an infamous scene[4] from John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, first published in 1616.  Even at that late date it was clearly associated with the gardens of the nobility.  It was a fruit with class distinctions.

The passage from Richard II is actually quite knowledgeable about the details of how 




[1] Cecil, Evvelyn, A History of Gardening in England, 97. “The greatest addition to the number of cultivated fruits was the apricot, which was certainly introduced before the middle of the sixteenth century, probably by Henry the Eighth's gardener Wolf about 1524.” 
[2] Britten, James. The Names of Herbs, by William Turner A.D. 1548, 52.
[3] Marston, John.  The Fawne (1606), I. ii.  “…pare thy beard, clense thy teeth, and eat apricocks…”  The apricots are intended to mark him out as a gallant.
[4] Webster, John.  The Duchess of Malfi (1616) II.i.all.


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1 comment:

Tom Goff said...

Good observation about the apricocks. Proof that the hidden, aristocratic Shakespeare was simply good at employing the telling anachronism: as Charlton Ogburn observed, his plays are like shot silk, displaying with one fold the glow of long-ago historic times, then with another fold the hues of his own Elizabethan times: how often did Elizabeth's garden seem ready to fall into disrepair?

A side note: as for the comicality of gardeners and other such walk-ons, I loved the scene in an otherwise forceful, darkly propulsive RII (long ago at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival), in which the Gardener enters pushing the squeakiest available wheelbarrow...