Word of the Day: Prune

June 24, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

This article could have been about the verb, which is used to describe, variously, Jupiter’s eagle (in Cymbeline), Berowne’s stereotypical lover (in Love’s Labour’s Lost), and the dangerously ambitious Worcester (in Henry IV part I). However, I will continue to mine the rich depository of Shakespeare’s foodstuffs and concentrate on the noun. It occurs eight times, almost always in the mouths of comic characters. Twice, for example, we find it spoken by figures the folio stage headings call “Clown”: a shepherd in The Winter’s Tale and Pompey the bawd in Measure for Measure.

Before we discuss these passages, I would like my reader to imagine a prune. In Elizabethan times, this subspecies of plum was served dried as a delicacy. Small, round, and wrinkly, it seems to have been considered reminiscent of a testicle. Pompey, describing the quite possibly fictitious visit of constable Elbow’s wife to a house of ill repute, says that “she came in great with child; and longing – saving your honour’s reverence – for stew’d prunes”. The prunes in question, on which Pompey dwells so fulsomely as to drive a frustrated Angelo from the court, are a transparent reference to male sexual favours, underlined by the use of “stew’d”, a culinary term synonymous with low-life and immorality.

The simple shepherd, although in conversation with the far from pure Autolycus (famous now as an early purveyor of the “dildo”) is not quite so lewd as Pompey when it comes to fruit. Whereas Pompey details how Mrs Elbow supposedly sat “cracking the stones of the foresaid prunes”, the shepherd innocently thinks about the feast’s need for “four pound of prunes, and as many raisins o’the sun”. Note that these are fresh prunes (in contrast to the sun-dried grapes), and thus, one imagines, less prone to insalubrious insinuations.

My last reference to prunes is given to us by Falstaff, a frequent figure in these articles, not least because of his great appetite for food and drink. Participating in the ‘Pompey’ tradition, the old knight tells the Hostess that “There’s no more faith in thee than in a stew’d prune”, where “stew’d prune” is the fruity synonym of ‘prostitute’. In Henry IV part II, the same equivalence lies behind Doll’s tyrade against Pistol, when she, in the presence of Falstaff and others, accuses the hot-blooded captain of living “upon moldy stewed prunes and dried cakes”. Of course, only one of these nouns actually refers to a foodstuff, and so Doll’s phrase provides a final example of how objects answering one bodily need may represent the satiation of another, and thus a whole network of moral judgments founded on the humble “prunus domestica”.

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