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Spuds, Greensleaves and Other Indelicacies in Shakespeare

As every Irish schoolboy knows (or should) Shakespeare has Falstaff cry out, ‘Let the sky rain potatoes’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5, scene 5). The teacher will no doubt have pointed to the anachronism. Sir Walter Raleigh hadn’t yet introduced the vegetable into the Northern Hemisphere. The class would have been reminded the image is supposed to invoke an exotic indulgence, not a dangerous downpour.

As the potato was so much part of my patrimony and diet, and I was lead to believe that Shakespeare was an Irishman with a Dublin brogue, I didn’t give it another thought, until recently I was comparing the book of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and someone suggested I’d do better looking up The Merry Wives. It was an April Fool (or Fish as they say in France), which I fell for. Still I spotted the potato quote. I hadn’t noticed the line before, ‘Let (the sky) thunder to the tune of Greensleeves’, and it was annotated in my Complete Shakespeare (edited by Peter Alexander) as ‘a ballad not tending to godliness, Act 2, scene 1’. I followed up the reference. Mistress Ford describes Falstaff’s disorderly companions. ‘They no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of Greensleeves’, adding, ‘The wicket fires of lust have melted him (Falstaff) in his own grease. Did you ever hear the like?’, which sounded to me just like Juno talking about Joxer in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.   

A sacred text sung to a profane song. Greensleeves would have been known to Shakespeare as the ditty Henry the Eighth wrote for Anne Boleyn, his disaffected mistress when she was holding out for marriage. It’s about giving her a fancy frock and much finery and she turned her back on him. He might as well have wooed her with the Hundredth Psalm (‘Make a joyful noise. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before his presence with singing’).  

Spare a thought for La Bolaing, not the most obviously beautiful woman around Henry, trying to regain her virtue and claim part of his kingdom. She would have known from her upbringing in France that mistresses have the upper hand (in Boleyn’s case with an additional finger. She had six, like every other thatcher’s granddaughter, and, indeed, Leni the minx in Kafka’s The Trial), and should never go legitimate, particularly if they can’t resist engaging in hankypanky with ‘the groom of the stool’ (Henry North, Henry the Eighth’s favourite toilet attendant. Who promptly got the chop).

As every movie-goer of my generation is aware Anne Boleyn, failing to give Henry a son and heir, lost her head to an executioner brought in especially from Calais, and Henry asked him to use a heavy sword so she would not be dispatched in the French style, head down, on a block with an axe. The English technique was head up, slow left-arm delivery, possibly a chinaman and then a Trevor Bailey square cut. Though, I suppose, it wasn’t cricket. Only tennis was played at the time. Still ‘a sliced shot’ isn’t quite right. 

Queen Elizabeth the First, who was more Henry’s daughter than Anne Boleyn’s, had Mary Queen of Scots executed in the English style also, and their erect heads have struck a medallion in the mind of history. Though it must have been a big blow at the time, missing out on the guillotine (Anne’s patrimoine, and Mary’s preference).

But back to potatoes. Shakespeare clearly had heard of them but never eaten one. Unless in his seafaring days he had landed in South America, and had been imprisoned by the natives, but made his escape. So his spuds as manna was a joke at the expense of bobo Londoners who thought Latin American légumes were bound to be gourmet.

He might well have been conversant with a traditional recipe that resurfaced in Gerard’s Herball (1636):

‘The potato, also called Skyrrets of Bogota, is a mean between flesh and fruit. But somewhat windie. Less so if cooked in embers and sopped in wine. Add prunes, oile, vinegar and salt. Every man to his own taste and liking. No matter how it’s dressed this nutriment doth comfort, nourish and strengthen the body. And is no lesse toothsome, wholesome and dainty as the flesh of quince and other delicate sweetmeats so prized in our shops.’