Word of the Day: Turkey

December 9, 2011 in Word of the Day

Shakespeare has five turkeys in his works, scattered across the comedies and histories. There are no turkeys in the tragedies, perhaps because it was still rather rare to kill a turkey at Christmas in Shakespeare’s time, and a turkey thus led a less tragic life then than it does nowadays.

Indeed, one may suspect that the turkey was a rare sight in London, since Shakespeare is often careful to make clear that he is talking about the bird, especially when comparison to this particular avian is used as an insult. When the welshmen, Gower and Fluellen, see Pistol in Henry V, they describe him “swelling like a turkey-cock”. When Fabian wants to capture the hoodwinked Malvolio’s state of mind, he too reaches for the Christmas bird, saying that “Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock” out of Olivia’s steward. These two examples suggest a link between the turkey and pride, perhaps based on the ostentation of serving this delicacy at one’s table. Certainly, Gremio, reflecting on what makes him an eligible batchelor is very proud of another import, this time actually coming from the Middle East (whereas turkeys came from the New World), namely his “Turkey cushions”.

The final reference to a turkey in Shakespeare is the most banal, two salesmen in Henry IV part I, in a scene often excised, complain about their wares, and especially their far-from-festive turkeys…

2. CAR. I have a gammon of bacon and two razes of ginger, to be delivered as far as Charing-cross.
1. CAR. ‘Odsbody! the turkeys in my pannier are quite starved.

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