Plants in King Lear

Fragments is delighted to bring you a guest post from Professor Andrew Hadfield, author of several books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare and Republicanism, Shakespeare, Spencer and the Matter of Britain, and Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics. Professor Hadfield is currently writing a biography of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser.

We are all familiar with the reference to samphire in King Lear, when Edgar claims that he sees a person hanging down the cliffs at Dover gathering the plant. Edgar provides details to make his account more realistic to his blind father, describing the actions of the imagined pauper as a ‘dreadful trade’. Lear is indeed a play which shows an acute interest in native English plants. Two scenes earlier Cordelia describes her father ‘Crowned with rank fumier and Furrow-weeds,/ With burdock, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, /Darnel and all the idle weeds that grow / In our sustaining corn (IV.iv.3-6).  While the poor man gathers an edible plant in perilous circumstances, the king decks himself out with weeds that hinder the production of food, another way in which the play shows that the world has turned upside down.

As has previously been noted, Shakespeare may well have been reading books on plants before he wrote King Lear, as all the flowers represented in the play were contained in books on native English flora and fauna, most significantly John Gerard’s comprehensive The herball or Generall historie of plantes (London, 1597). Furthermore, Gerard has an entry for the plant, ‘Goat’s Beard’, which is also known as ‘Go to bed at noone’, a root that is best known now as salsify.  Salsify, like samphire was a poor person’s food, which, according to Gerard, ‘growes plentifully in most of the fields about London, as at Islington, Deptford and Putney, and in divers other places.’ It must then have been familiar to the audience at the Globe. The plant gets its Elizabethan name from the fact it ‘shuteth it selfe at twelve of the clocke, and showeth not his face open until the next dayes Sun doth make it floure anew, whereupon it was called Go to bed at noon’.

The last lines of the Fool are ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ (, which must surely be a reference to the root, as John Kerrigan has argued persuasively. As well as showing the Fool’s decline alongside his kingly sun, the reference is also to the sort of basic food that the poor had to eat, as salsfiy, like samphire, was an edible root that foragers could use, although neither appear in contemporary recipe books.  Lear has just requested that they ‘go to supper i’the morning’, a sign that everything has been turned around, and the Fool quips that they will now have to make do with humble fare (as well as stating that his day has been disrupted). King Lear makes much of extravagant hospitality and Lear’s expectations that his knights will be feasted by his daughters after he has ceased to be king.  Out on the heath and at the edges of his kingdom, ordinary folk have to take what they can get, a painful lesson that the deprived king is starting to learn.  Even so, he still wastes his time picking weeds to put in his hair, a luxury that people like the samphire gatherer cannot risk, as the Fool realises in his last warning to his master.

©Andrew Hadfield 2010.

This article was first printed in Notes and Queries, Vol.255 [New Series, Vol.57]. No 3. September 2010

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