Word of the Day: Onion

May 26, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

Foodstuffs have been a fruitful source of inspiration for these little articles. We have, for example, already sampled the delights of “Capon” and “Cake” (and even “whale” and “shark” for those more adventurous gastronomes). Today’s article, however, marks our first foray into Shakespeare’s mention of raw ingredients.

Onion appears five times in Shakespeare’s works, and all but one reference deals with their capacity to make the chef’s eyes water. Lafeu’s, “Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon” is perhaps the simplest of all such uses of the bulb (I would have typed vegetable, but such a categorisation is apparently quite contentious). Other characters, when speaking about onions’ lacrimose properties, display a peculiar tendency to associate them with women. After all, as Lear puts it “women’s weapons” are “water drops”. The eunuch in Antony and Cleopatra talks of the tear-inducing alium twice. Here, as Antony discusses the forthcoming war against Octavius, he declares:

ENOBARBUS. What mean you, sir,
To give them this discomfort? Look, they weep;
And I, an ass, am onion-ey’d: for shame,
Transform us not to women.

Similarly, a Lord in The Taming of the Shrew advises on how to acquire the woman’s gift of crying with the aid of an onion:

LORD … And if the boy have not a woman’s gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift,
Which, in a napkin being close convey’d,
Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.
See this dispatch’d with all the haste thou canst;
Anon I’ll give thee more instructions.

Peculiarly, all the references to onions in Shakespeare’s works, whether they deal with crying or women or neither of these, are made by men. My last example is no exception, and is taken from Bottom’s advice to his fellow Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is thankfully free from the misogyny of lord and eunuch, and instead displays a touching regard for the lord and ladies’ sense of smell.

BOTTOM … In any case, let Thisbe have clean linen; and let not him that plays the lion pare his nails, for they shall hang out for the lion’s claws. And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlick, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. No more words: away! go; away!

Thanks to these lines, when it comes to the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe at the play’s conclusion, one thing of which we can now be sure is that the eyes of the assembled gentry are weeping tears of laughter, and not, as Lafeu puts it ‘smelling Onions’.

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