Word of the Day: Hawthorn

September 23, 2011 in Word of the Day

Crataegus monogyna, or, to give its more usual name, the common hawthorn is fairly common in Shakespeare’s plays. For Henry VI, it even represents the ideal insouciance of the common people that he, as a persecuted king, longs for:

Gives not the hawthorn bush a sweeter shade
To shepherds looking on their silly sheep
Than doth a rich embroider’d canopy
To kings that fear their subjects’ treachery?

Indeed, shepherds are not the only commoners to make use of the common hawthorn: the mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream turn a hawthorn bush into their “tiring house”, that part of their makeshift rehearsal space where they will go and change their clothes (‘attire’). There is something of a joke here, since the hawthorn plant forms very dense bushes indeed, and so makes for a tiring house that would be rather difficult to enter into. Orlando, in As You Like It, would certainly be aware of this density, having – according to Rosalind at least – hung “odes upon hawthorns” in her honour, despite the obvious difficulty of attaching anything to plants so tangled and boxy that Edgar, in King Lear describes the power of a winter wind as something capable of blowing through “sharp hawthorn”.

As well as all this movement through, under, onto and into hawthorn bushes, there are one or two references to their buds. The branches of this plant, when in flower, used to be carried during May Day celebrations each year, until the shift to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 meant that the hawthorn started flowering in the middle and not the start of the month. However, the link between hawthorns, May, and all that May stands for in terms of young love, was alive and well in Shakespeare’s time, when Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream can bemoan such beauty in Hermia that it is more charming than all that goes on when “hawthorn buds appear”.

Last, but not least, we have the berries, and Falstaff’s contribution to this article. Declaring his love for Mrs Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he points out that she is not one of those “lisping hawthorn-buds that come like women in men’s apparel”, although quite what this might mean is beyond me. I shall content myself by guessing that such “hawthorn buds” stand for pathetic, weak lovers (Mercutio denounces the “lisp” of Tybalt and other “fantasticoes” in Romeo and Juliet), something that Falstaff and Mrs Ford are most certainly not.

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