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Plant Focus

Quercus crassipes acorns with inrolled cupule margin
One of the more well-known Mexican oaks in cultivation.

Oaks in Shakespeare

Much is made of Shakespeare's botanical expertise and his mention of plants in his plays and poetry. "Shakespeare Gardens", which feature plants mentioned in his work, are multitudinous. The oak is the most Shakespearean tree, with 41 mentions, easily outranking the other trees referred to in the canon, of which only apple and willow exceed 20. Only roses get more mentions than oak, and of course the plant has an unfair advantage due to the fact that the history plays are set in the War of the Roses, resulting in many references to the white and red roses that were the badges of the warring factions. I drew up a table listing all the mentions to oaks or its fruit and the meaning invoked by the reference. The table can be viewed here, or downloaded as a PDF file here. An analysis of Shakespeare's usage of oaks in his plays and poetry gives us both an insight into what they represented in the Elizabethan age and an appreciation of the Bard's broad knowledge of these trees.

There are 34 explicit references to oaks in Shakespeare’s works, plus two implicit references to oaks as “Jove’s tree”,1 four references to acorns, and one to cupules. They occur in 18 of the 37 plays and in one narrative poem (The Rape of Lucrece). Another reference is found in Two Noble Kinsmen, but the play is thought to have been written jointly by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

Oaks are mentioned mostly in dialogue, except for three instances: as part of a song in Cymbeline, as part of a poem read by a character in Love Labor’s Lost, and as a stage direction in Coriolanus. They occur usually as nouns, singular or plural, but twice as an adjective (“oaken”) and once as part of a compound adjective in Lear’s “oak-cleaving thunderbolts.” Acorns occur as nouns, except for one instance as, remarkably, an adjective (“acorn’d”, i.e. fed with acorns); the single reference to cupules is as “acorn-cups”.

Video: Roger Allam plays King Lear in Act III, scene 2: "You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,/Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,/Singe my white head!" - Source: The Guardian

As regards distribution of the references, the most English of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is in pole position with eight instances, but this is due to the fact that a central part of the plot, the plan to ambush Falstaff, is centered on a traditional Windsor landmark, Herne’s Oak. All instances of the word “oak” in the play refer to that tree and that scheme, including Mistress Ford’s double whammy: “to the oak, to the oak!” Similarly, in Coriolanus, in second place with seven instances, much is made of the fact that the protagonist is crowned with a garland of oak leaves2 as a mark of military victory. Four references mention the oaken garland, including a stage direction (always rare in Shakespeare) that specifies that Coriolanus enters “crowned with an oaken garland.” But with three instances where Quercus is used for poetic purposes, Coriolanus appears to be the most genuinely oak-rich play. Other references are evenly distributed among the works where they are found, with one or two apiece, save for As You Like It, which boasts four.

Falstaff at Hern-s Oak by Bunbury
"Falstaff at Hern's Oak", engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi based on a watercolor by caricaturist Henry William Bunbury (1750–1811) - Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The adjectives the Bard uses to describe oaks center around strength and robustness, e.g., “stout”, “sound”, “hardest-timber’d”, but they also refer to the quality of the timber (“knotted”, “knotty”, “gnarled”, “close”—as in close-grained). However, the most striking adjective he used for an oak is surely “unwedgeable” (impervious to wedges, which are used to split or divide wood, or to tip a tree in the desired direction when felling it). In fact, his is the first recorded use of the word in that sense (in Measure for Measure, 1603) and the next recorded instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, does not occur till over 200 years later.

Oaks are associated with a high diversity of meanings in Shakespeare's oeuvre. He uses oaks mostly as a landmark (blame that on Falstaff), but as far as imagery is concerned, he most often mentions it as a symbol of solidity and fortitude, whether physical or moral, and in many cases in the context of a storm, where an oak has to endure wind and tempests—on land or at sea, as part of a ship. Specifically, an oak is four times depicted as victim of a lightning strike: aside from Lear on the heath, Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia refers to “a bolt/That should but rive an oak,” Prospero in The Tempest boasts he has “rifted Jove’s stout oak/With his own bolt,” and in Measure for Measure Isabella claims Heaven is merciful because it chooses a tree its own size rather than a weakling to aim its lightning at:

Video:  Kate Nelligan in the BBC Shakespeare production of Measure for Measure (1979), directed by Desmond David, Act  II scene 2:
"Merciful Heaven,/Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt/Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak/Than the soft myrtle" - Source:
alexanderjdurham

Other instances mention oaks as a symbol of longevity and abundance (of leaves and also of mast), of secrecy, as a place of meditation, or even as a place of potential incarceration—Prospero threatens to stuff Caliban inside an oak for twelve years. Though Shakespeare uses the oak to suggest great height and size, surpassed only by the cedar (“the cedar… whose top-branch overpeer’d Jove’s spreading tree”, Henry VI, Part III), the oak’s fruit serves to suggest insignificance (“Get you gone, you dwarf;… You bead, you acorn”, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Video: Bryan Dick plays Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, scene 2: "Get you gone, you dwarf;/You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;/You bead, you acorn." - Source: Shakespeare's Globe

Prospero and Volumnia are neck and neck in the contest for characters with most oak references (three each), though Volumnia may have it by a nose if we consider that one of Prospero’s references is to acorns rather than oaks per se.

It could be argued that the many references to Birnam Wood (forest, trees, boughs) in Macbeth should be added to this list, as it is likely that this forest in Shakespeare's time included Quercus petraea (sessile oak). However, the wood also would have included Acer pseudoplatanus (sycamore, sycamore maple), so it is not certain what species of trees were used to shadow the number of Malcolm's hosts. In fact, most film directors opted for conifers in their cinematic depictions of the scene

Now, which oak species Shakespeare had in mind when he used the word "oak"? If you are a Stratfordian and believe that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) from Stratford wrote the plays, you would be limited to the native British oaks (Quercus robur and Q. petraea) and perhaps Q. ilex (holm oak)—though as it was introduced to England in the late 1500s it is unlikely he would have seen an adult specimen. However, if you are an Oxfordian and contend that the works were authored by Edward de Vere (1550–1604), 17th Earl of Oxford, the range of species would be greater, as Oxford is known to have traveled widely in Europe. Aged 25, he went on a “grand tour” to France, Germany, and especially Italy, where he visited all of the Italian locations that would provide the settings of Shakespeare’s Italian plays. It is also possible he visited Greece. If de Vere was in fact the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, then his experience of oaks might have also included Q. cerris, Q. pubescens, Q. frainetto, Q. macrolepis, Q. trojana, and Q. suber.

Video: Sophie Stewart (Celia) and Elisabeth Bergner (a disconcertedly accented Rosalind) in As You Like It (1936), directed by Laurence Olivier, Act III, scene 2:
"CELIA: I found him under a tree, like a dropp'd acorn. ROSALIND: It may well be call'd Jove's tree, when it drops forth such fruit." - Source: The Film Detective

 

Acknowledgments

Locating the references to oak in Shakespeare was made possible principally by the website OpenSourceShakespeare and Gerit Quealy's book Botanical Shakespeare. A shorter version of this article appeared in Oak News & Notes Vol. 18, No. 1 (2014).


1 The oak was associated with Jove (Jupiter), the Roman equivalent to Zeus, perhaps because it was likely to be hit by lightning, which was thought be to wielded by this god, the head of the pantheon.

2 According to Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia, XVI, 5) leaves from three types of oak were used for this garland, which was known as the Civic Crown (corona civica): ilex, aesculus, quercus. The first would be holm oak (Q. ilex), and the last would be common oak (Q. robur), but it is not clear which modern species aesculus referred to. Pliny suggests that preference was given to the species found growing in the particular locality, but that the honor of providing a Civic Crown always fell to an acorn-bearing tree. Though at first the wreath was presented for military victories, it was later awarded for specific acts, namely saving the life of a fellow citizen or killing one of the enemy.