THE SECRETS OF STRAWBERRIES

The use of strawberries in the works about Richard III written by Thomas More, Edward Hall, and William Shakespeare has always been puzzling to me, and I suspect, many others. The fact that strawberry are given such a prominent mention in the ‘council chamber’ scene where Richard reveals an, ahem, withered arm, is well known is perplexing. It is almost implied that the word ‘strawberries‘ should immediately communicate something to to the reader and viewer of the play, but as nothing more is made of the mention further on, it is rendered it pointless, at least to a modern audience. This had led to wild theories such as ‘Richard ate strawberries and turned into a strawberry-coloured version of the Incredible Hulk’. I jest, but it is true that about 8 years ago there were published theories relating to ‘hives making Richard’s arm withered’ which is downright odd, for an allergy would cause urticaria, which is raised and puffy. If it was a really serious allergy, it might have caused anaphylaxis–and with no epi-pens available, the whole story might have had a very different ending!

But I digress. I thought I might have another deep dig at what strawberries might symbolise. Most symbolism seemed to be positive–Venus, the Virgin Mary, honour, purity. However, I did find references to it being used for depression, and also that rather than being seen as a ‘food of love’, it was seen as a ‘Devil’s fruit’, leading one into temptation. None of these really seem to fit with the council chamber strawberries, although apparently in the medieval Low Countries strawberries with their leaves were thought to be a symbol of treachery as they could harbour poisonous serpents. I think we might be getting closer here…This seems to go well with a quote written by the French author Claude Paradin in 1581, who described an emblem showing a strawberry plant twined with a snake, with the motto ‘the adder lurketh privilie in the grass.’

Unfortunately there is not a great deal of further information, although does seem there is some evidence of a strawberry signifying the hiding of something treacherous.

But then I found this rather macabre piece of medieval art. Look what is prominently displayed at the bottom of the the picture! It seems that strawberries definitely held some kind of significance beyond ‘love’ and ‘perfection.’

 

 

7 comments

  1. Many years ago I did read someone’s conjecture that Richard had a minor allergy to strawberries which could cause some unpleasant visual effects.The writer than opined that Richard may have intentionally eaten the strawberries to elicit those effects, then claimed the Woodvilles were cursing him to wither his arm.

    Well, the writer did agree that the claim would be a bit weak.

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  2. “ strawberries with their leaves were thought to be a symbol of treachery as they could harbour poisonous serpents”
    Well yes! The strawberries in question did come from Cardinal Morton’s garden, so spot on there!

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  3. Is it possible that the presense of thestrawberries was to account for theabsence of Bishop Morton at a crucial moment, with no further meaning?

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  4. This is very interesting. I had read in the past about the association of strawberries with love, but knew nothing about this link with hddien serpents and treachery.
    The other well known literary use of strawberries from the early modern period, of course, is Othello. The strawberry hankie was a love token from him to Desdemonda: but now I see that Iago’s covert interference with it draws on the hidden serpent symbolism. Nice one!

    More was presumably saying Richard asked for the strawberries because Richard was a serpent, but Morton gave them out of innocent love. But it’s intriguing me how much better the symbolism would work in a pro-Richard version of the scene, one in which the action is simplified by Morton simply bringing in some of his strawberries off his own bat in a show of friendship, and Richard’s accusations (whatever these actually were) being taken at face value: Morton’s strawberries have a serpent hiding in their leaves.

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  5. Northern art is replete with iconographic details and to an eye trained in Italian art I find it almost like a too wildly saturated visual code that I want to run away and hide! The classes I had in Northern medieval-Renaissance painting alone made me sense that everything I looked at was in fact NOT what I was looking at, those jarring elements (in proportion, stylization, coloring, contrast with everything else in the overall image) – like the example from this illuminated page – are all painted with such clarity and precision – tells me that a second (or third) layer of meaning must be intended IF I knew that code. And the code was so often tied to regional cultures, a patron’s own interests, religious and other pious material, dynastic or political references, and worst of all, colloquial terms, folk tales and local proverbs – or an imagery SO well known, so familiar to the viewer’s eye in say 1300 or 1450 or 1550 that no one would think to write down what it meant, it was self-explanatory!

    as to the strawberries, I agree, it is an oddly specific detail, pointedly specific, and since the strawberries of Richard’s day were tiny, essentially thumbnail sized berries it is hard for me to imagine serpents of any kind hiding coiled up and waiting to lunge at the pure soul wandering too close. IF there is an analogy that “Richard” is making, is it the historical one, the real Richard, or the one Shakespeare was referring to from HIS day? (ie. the Elizabethan version of Richard, and I do not mean the Tudor caricature of Richard, but the real life “slight, crooked, hump-backed young gentleman, dwarfish in stature” Robert Cecil of the 1590’s – as Matt Lewis has discussed). Writing also has multiple levels of meaning, and as someone has mentioned, it isn’t the strawberries themselves “Richard” is concerned with but their use as a signal, one Morton and the others were meant to miss.

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