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.’