Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sycamores in Shakespeare

Old Fig-Mulberry (Ficus sycomorus) in Ayia Napa, Cyprus

[Image source:]

Back to plants and poetry; both together in this case.

Shakespeare mentions sycamores three times in his plays.

In Act I Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio informs Lady Montague where her son, the stereotypical melancholy lover Romeo, has wandered off to.

Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city's side,
So early walking did I see your son:
Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood:
I, measuring his affections by my own,
That most are busied when they're most alone,
Pursued my humour not pursuing his,
And gladly shunn'd who gladly fled from me.

(Old Montague remarks that this is a regular haunt for Romeo's sighs and tears.)

In Act V Scene 2 of Love's Labours Lost, Boyet tells us:

Under the cool shade of a sycamore
I thought to close my eyes some half an hour.

And finally, in Act IV Scene 3 of Othello, Desdemona sings the opening line of the "Willow Song":

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
    Sing all a green willow...

We'll come back to this song, but for now I'm going to focus on the passage in Romeo and Juliet, impelled there by Richard Paul Roe's book, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels (2011). This book, published soon after its author's death in 2010, has gained a certain reputation among Anti-Stratfordians, i.e. those people who think that Shakespeare's works were not written by Shakespeare but by someone else. They believe it unlikely that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon knew Italy at first hand. So they think that if the plays reveal first-hand knowledge of Italy, it helps their case.

Roe points out that the direct source for RJ, Arthur Brooke's Tragicall Historye (1562), doesn't mention any sycamores; nor do such earlier versions of the story as Bandello's (1554). So they were a new addition by the author of Romeo and Juliet.  Roe travelled to Verona and was shown sycamores just outside the Porta Palio, once a gate in the medieval walls on the west side of Verona. These trees are descendants, he claims, of the grove actually seen in situ by the author of Romeo and Juliet. (He would have seen the same Porta Palio that survives today: it was built in 1550-1561, replacing an earlier gate.)

Roe isn't specific, but judging from this Italian source, it appears that the trees in question are Fig-Mulberry (Ficus sycomorus), a splendid tree commonly planted in urban sites in the Mediterranean, and called "sicomoro" in Italian. (The name, of Greek origin, literally means Fig  (sykon) + Mulberry (moron).)

It's native to the Middle East and has been cultivated, like the Common Fig, for thousands of years. It's too frost-tender to grow in Britain.

But as it happens it is the species that was originally meant by "sycamore" in English, because the earliest OED examples (sense 1)  are all talking about the tree in the Bible, e.g in Luke 19:4.

Et praecurrens ascendit in arborem sycomorum ut videret eum: quia inde erat transiturus. (Luke 19:4, Vulgate)

And he ran before,  and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. (Luke 19:4, Kings James Version)

(The earliest English versions translate this as "a wild fig tree" but Douay-Rheims (1582) reverted to the Vulgate "sycomore" and this was adopted by the King James Version.)


The OED (Sycamore, sense 2) tells us that Shakespeare's sycamore (specifically in the passage from Love's Labours Lost) means Acer pseudoplatanus, the tree that we in England call Sycamore today. (In Scotland, it's often called the Plane. You sometimes see the term Great Maple; nobody really uses it, but at least it's unambiguous, unlike the other vernacular names.)

This is a species that grows very well in Britain. It's apt to spread in the wild and indeed is considered rather a pest by conservationists, but most authorities (not all)  are in agreement that it isn't a native tree. One of the arguments is that native A. pseudoplatanus in Europe are upland trees and there was no land of that sort anywhere close to the land-bridge. But I don't really understand this argument, because immediately after an Ice Age conditions in the lowlands are like the top of a mountain. In those very early days, the plants that we call high alpines would make their return to Britain. Later on, as conditions progressively warmed, subalpines, montane and submontane plants. Finally, the lowland plants of today. Surely at some point during that long succession the conditions would have been right for A. pseudoplatanus to make its move!

But anyway, most people aren't convinced that it's a native. What would have been the ecological niche of this supposedly native plant? These days, we only ever see it as invading other niches. Being salt-resistant, it's particularly well-established in the harsh conditions of our north-eastern coasts; undercliffs and the like. Yet in Europe it's a tree of inland hills.

Unfortunately there isn't any agreement about when it was introduced.

Perhaps it was the Romans. Or perhaps it took place some time in the Middle Ages. There is a naturalistic carving of the leaf and keys of A. pseudoplatanus on the 14th Century shrine of St Frideswide in Christchurch, Oxford. Hard to know what to make of that: other carvings on the shrine include grapevine, mulberry, ivy, oak and greater celandine.

Perhaps the majority view is that A. pseudoplatanus was introduced in the 16th Century. Alan Mitchell suggested that it was first introduced to Scotland from France, around 1550. The two nations were closely allied at the time, and this could explain why many of the oldest and best specimen trees are in Scotland; for example the Newbattle Abbey tree, which fell in 2006, reckoned to have been planted in 1560 by the Earl of Lothian.

When someone in the unsystematic age of Shakespeare uses a plant-name, particularly to name a plant they have actually seen or used for themselves and not a plant in a book, it's often difficult or impossible to know what species of plant they were talking about. Popular plant-names are notorious for being applied in a very individualistic way to a wide variety of different species. "Sycamore", in England, was a name in search of a tree.

So when in Chaucer's Hous of Fame we hear of "a table of sycamour" (line 1276) - presumably a fictional table - , or when in the Paston Letters we find "a payre of beddes of segamore" (1506) - presumably real beds - , how can we say with certainty what kind of timber was meant? (The timber of A. pseudoplatanus is excellent, but had it even been introduced into Britain by that date? We just don't know.) The  OED's early examples of "Sycamore" in the sense of A. pseudoplatanus (sense 2)  all contain a strong dash of uncertainty. They might mean A. pseudoplatanus, but they might equally well mean something else.

And Shakespeare's references to "sycamore" are no exception. I'm not at all convinced he had A. pseudoplatanus in mind.

The first of the OED sense 2 examples where we can say:  "Yup, that's definitely A. pseudoplatanus.." date from no earlier than 1657. This isn't a particularly unusual situation when it comes to plant and tree names. Before that date, the kind of people who worked with trees, and who therefore had a good reason to explain exactly which tree they meant, were illiterate. It was only with the growth of written botany, and other writings about gardens and forestry and estate management, that we begin to know exactly what species is being referred to.

(In the USA, "Sycamore" means a plane tree, Platanus species, (OED sense 3), but this seems to have begun only in the 19th century.)


... "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang", "the crow makes wing to the rooky wood", "My way of life is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf", "When lofty trees I see barren of leaves / which erst from heat did canopy the herd" ...

Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest poetry about trees in the English language, but nothing convinces me that he was particularly interested in or skilled in separating one species from another. He was not a botanist or a forester.

The trees he names most often are Oak and Willow. Birch is named only as a schoolroom instrument of punishment; Ash as a synecdoche for spear. Beech, Poplar and Maple, all included in Spenser's "catalogue of trees" in The Fairie Queene I.1.8-9, are never mentioned by Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's three references to Elm are clearly grounded (like Spenser's) in fable and proverb, and the same can be said of the references to Pine. Shakespeare had read that pines were lofty and that they grew on mountains. But he didn't realize that when pines grow on mountains they are not lofty.

You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;  (Merchant of Venice)

This kind of cultural or literary context, rather than direct acquaintance with the tree in question, also seems to me the best way of looking at Shakespeare's references to Sycamore -- a tree, by the way, that doesn't appear in Spenser's "catalogue of trees", confirming the suspicion that it was far from commonplace in Britain at this date.

Most likely Shakespeare didn't envisage any particular species that he'd seen for himself. He meant the Sycamore that he had read about or heard about. The Sycamore for him would be a euphonious, rather exotic sounding tree-name with classical and biblical connections. Just the thing for his plays with their exotic far-away settings.


The Willow Song in Othello was evidently not Shakespeare's own composition. He part-quotes (and part-adapts) fragments of an already well-known song (perhaps from around 1570, perhaps a bit earlier); the music is in older lute-books, though the earliest complete-ish text of the lyric is in a manuscript of 1616. Typical of popular songs, it positively thrives on enigma; having referred to sycamore in its opening line, it thereafter refers only to willow. In the original song, the lovesick protagonist is male. The sycamore's appearance here and in the RJ passage suggests that it had developed an association with lovesick swains. Perhaps that association arose because of the opening line of the popular song, or perhaps from false-etymology: sick-amor.  At this point in the play Shakespeare wanted to establish Romeo's conventionally lovesick behaviour, and adorned his description with the first appropriate-sounding tree-name that came to mind.

[ I took this idea from the poet Robin Hamilton; it came up in a discussion on the British-Poets forum. But there's a history of it going back to Delius, see Klaus Bartenschlager's Note "The Love-Sick Tree" -- which unfortunately I haven't read beyond the first page, because access is controlled by the academic publishing industry. ]


What then to make of Roe's discovery? His Verona trees don't look old, and them being where they are doesn't prove (or even particularly suggest) that trees of the same species were there in the 1580s. This area is now paved and tarmacked. Is there any evidence of continuity with a more ancient grove? Or was this a relatively recent urban planting? Perhaps the canny Veronese authorities chose the "sicomoro" with the famous play about their city in mind?

Here's what I really think. Unlike the Anti-Stratfordians, I don't find it inconceivable that Shakespeare (of Stratford-upon-Avon) might have visited Italy. There was plenty of unaccounted-for time in the 1580s when we don't know what Shakespeare was doing. But as things stand I don't know of any persuasive evidence that he ever went to Italy. Probably he never travelled outside England. But people tend to under-rate the combined power of his omnivorous reading, his life in a cosmopolitan city, his unparalleled imagination and his unparalleled gift for thinking himself into other people's skins. When Shakespeare set plays in Italy or elsewhere,  painting a realistic portrait of the locale and culture came fairly low down on his priority list.  But because he imagined his stories so intensely and so fully, he was more than usually apt to hit on things that really turned out to be close to local events of which he had no knowledge. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare mentioned sycamores without much reflection, but the things that perhaps unconsciously influenced his choice -  the fact that they had exotic biblical associations as well as associations with the behaviour of lovers - are by no means entirely unrelated to the reasons why there really are sicomoros in Verona today, and surely were in the 1580s too, if not perhaps just to the "westward" of the "city's side". It was a tree of sunny climes, a valued tree, a tree planted for shade in urban spaces, a tree therefore that in a place like Italy would inevitably be used as a prop in the elaborate rituals of love. All those ideas might have occurred to Shakespeare simply from reading his Bible, if he had been ethno-botanically inclined. But of course he wasn't, and that wasn't how it happened. The ideas came to him not consciously, and not to him alone. The hive-mind of European literature was already fixing these ideas about the sicomoro in story and song. So Shakespeare's surprise bull's-eye is not such a surprise.  

[Just as it's not such a surprise that there's a "Sagittary" in Shakespeare's Venice, and  it turns out that there's a Frezzeria ("fletchery") in the real Venice. Details in the link below.  ]

Acer pseudoplatanus, the Sycamore in modern English parlance

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