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“A Pearl in Every Cowslip's Ear”

In celebration of Shakespeare's birthday, Jo Wilding talks to us about the beautiful - and commonly referenced by the Bard himself - cowslip flower.

Jo Wilding

Today is Shakespeare's birthday and Stratford is basking in glorious sunshine. A number of recent spells of warm weather leading up to today have caused the natural world here in Warwickshire to burst forth in new green on trees and hedgerows and in prolific blossom and emerging wild flowers. One of these, which if you look carefully can be seen locally in fields and verges, is the beautiful cowslip, which is sadly much less common now than in Shakespeare's time. I took the photo above in a nearby lane where I was walking my dog this morning.*

Shakespeare uses some of his most evocative language to describe this plant. Ariel in The Tempest sings of lying in a cowslip’s bell, and in the following lines from the scene in which we first meet Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamthe fairy who encounters him conjures up a delightful image when she says that she is off to hang pearly dewdrops as earrings in the cowslips.

midsummer night's dream excerpt

And I serve the Fairy Queen
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be.
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours.
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.

The Arden edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (second series, 1979) says that the pensioners are the “fairy counterparts to Elizabeth’s [pensioners], her gentlemen of the royal bodyguard … who were chosen for their birth, height and good looks, and wore uniforms adorned with gold lace and jewels”.

One of the men who was captain of these gentlemen pensioners for part of Elizabeth's reign was Henry Carey, first Lord Hunsdon, who was the queen's cousin (his mother was Mary, sister of Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn) and who was appointed as her Lord Chamberlain in 1585. Lord Hunsdon was patron of a company of players, Lord Hunsdon's Men, which became the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's acting company. Hunsdon's granddaughter Elizabeth Carey married Thomas Berkeley in 1595 and it has been suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed at the wedding although there is no evidence to support it.

Earrings were worn by both fashionable Elizabethan men and women. The famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare at the National Portrait Gallery shows him wearing an earring, although not a pearl one.

The cowslip illustrated in our 1633 edition of Gerard's Herbal
The cowslip illustrated in our 1633 edition of Gerard's Herbal

Less glamorously, John Gerard in his Herbal (1633 edition) gives the following medicinal properties of cowslips – “the cowslips are commended against the paine of the joints called the Gout, and the slacknesse of the sinews, which is the palsie”, as well as for other ailments such as kidney and bladder stones!

The image showing the lines from A Midsummer Night's Dream is from our copy of the second quarto of the playpublished in 1619.

Top image copyright © Jo Wilding*

Other images copyright © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

*Content no longer available.