Updated: Nov 6, 2021
In honor of National Farmers Day, we’re discussing Shakespeare’s connection with farming!
Was Shakespeare a Farmer?
No. Well, Will wasn’t. BUT let us tell you who was:
His mommy’s daddy (Robert Arden)
His daddy’s daddy (Richard Shakespeare)
His daddy (John Shakespeare)
Ok, sidetrack (kind of) for a second because that last one might’ve been a lie… Let us explain. In short, John was known as a glove maker and brogger (aka illegal wool dealer.) He is thought to only have worked on his father’s farm for a bit when he was younger, being documented at one point as a “husbandman” (aka farmer). Interestingly, historians question whether this document’s description was accurate or a mistake. Despite this uncertainty, we’ll keep him on the list since he probably did at least “a little” farming. Just remember that he didn’t devote his career to it, unlike Robert and Richard.
Did William Shakespeare ever participate in the practice of farming? Maybe. We truly don’t know, but a good educational guess says he was definitely exposed to it - both from his family and where he grew up: a very agricultural England.
Fun Fact: “Mary Arden’s Farm”:
Built circa 1514 by her father, Robert Arden
Where Mary Arden (William Shakespeare’s mom) & her 7 sisters grew up
OPEN FOR TOURS! Go take one next time you’re in England!
Mary Arden’s Farm
Top Farming Books of the Era
(REMEMBER: Husbandrye means farming.)
Fitzherbert’s The Book of Good Husbandrye
Sir Anthony Fitzherbert’s The Book of Good Husbandrye was first published in 1523. It was considered a huge hit - one that would finally replace Walter of Henley's farming treatise from the 13th century.
Tusser’s A Hundred Good Pointes of Husbandrie
Thomas Tusser’s A Hundred Good Pointes of Husbandrie was published in 1557 and expanded to Five Hundred Good Pointes of Husbandry, united to as many Good Pointes of Huswifery in 1573.
Shakespeare’s Farming References
Throughout his works, William Shakespeare references several aspects of farming, from planting crops to keeping pests away. Sometimes employed as a metaphor, sometimes more literal, these references had various impacts on the scene. Below is a tiny sampling of fun examples!
When Was This Scene?
Did you realize agricultural references can help establish a scene’s setting?! Let’s apply what Tusser teaches about plowing to help us determine when Act 5 Scene 1 of Henry the Fourth, Part II occurs. We’ll draw clues from Davy and Shallow’s conversation in the scene.
In their exchange, Davy says, “and, again, sir, shall we sow the headland with wheat? … Yes, sir. Here is now the smith's note for shoeing and plough-irons.”
FYI: The headland (an outer edge of a planted field) was a key component of the strip-field system. “At each end of the long field was a bit of land on which the team turned and rested before commencing another furrow. The headland was rich in animal droppings, and Tusser advises that the soil there, after rotting in piles over winter, be used to manure the fields (ch. 19, st. 19).”
Tusser advised wheat sowing in September, and as the headlands Davy mentions were the last to be plowed & harvested (aka after the wheat), one can assume Act 5 Scene 1 takes place around early October!
Don’t Share Your Tools!
Both Tusser & Shakespeare didn’t approve. So stop sharing them! Apparently, sharing is NOT caring?
Tusser wrote, “Dull working tooles, soone courage coles.” We guess Tusser wasn’t one to tread lightly on his opinions… He went on, “Get grindstone and whetstone, for toole that is dull, or often be letted and freat bellie full.” Shakespeare echoes this sentiment through Polonious’s advice to Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, For loan oft loses both itself and a friend. And borrowing duluth th’ edge of husbandry.” Would you dare to lend your tools?
In Henry the Sixth, Part III, the Earl of Warwick mentions:
“Their weapons like to lightning came and went;
Our soldiers’, like the night-owl’s lazy flight,
Or like an idle thresher with a flail,”
Threshing is a final step of grain production. Until then, the barley and wheat were threshed in February or March, they were stored in a sheaf so that farmers could have continued labor and fuel throughout the winter. Shakespeare’s above quote may suggest that winter’s threshing period helped retain employment for many farmers. Yay employment!
Fun Fact: The threshing machine came out in the late 18th century. How do you think it was received? Machines cut down on time and labor efforts, which meant workers who thresh were no longer doing nearly as much work - the work that kept them employed in the winter. Feel free to do some research… people certainly had opinions back then!
Shakespeare Knew His Stuff!
Out of 31 trees and fruits Tusser lists to be set or removed (though he does not specify which is which), 23 of them appear in Shakespeare’s works!
Fun Fact: Grapes, apples, and hawthorns were most frequently mentioned.
Additionally, 60% of the herbs, flowers, and the like mentioned by Tusser are found in Shakespeare’s canon!
Fun Fact: Of all of them, roses appear the most - a total of 109 times! Violets take second place with a grand total of 18 mentions.
A Figurative Example
This article is getting a bit lengthy, but we know you’re BURSTING to hear a figurative reference to farming, so here’s a quick one!
After the harvest came gleaning - collecting what is left on the field after it has been commercially harvested. Tusser suggested the poor should glean before the cattle be released into the field.
In As You Like It Act 3 Scene 5, Silvius says,
“So holy and so perfect is my love,
And I in such a poverty of grace,
That I shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps.”
“Silvius would glean his reward in the wake of the mower, the object of Phoebe’s love.”
Simple enough? Curiosity satisfied?
Inspired by this article, keep track of the different kinds of references you find the next time you read a play or even a single scene. (These categories could include farming/agriculture, clothing & accessories, myths/legends/fables, etc.) Notice if any of them repeat heavily. Why do you think the playwright chose to do this? Does it reveal anything about the setting, character, audience’s assumed common knowledge …?
Lastly, as we celebrated National English Language Day & National Dictionary Day this week, we want to give a shoutout to our Word of the Week posts every Wednesday on our social media. The Word of the Week provides information on words and phrases Shakespeare coined - how the words came to be, how their definitions might’ve been different from the modern definitions we’re used to today, a guess which character said this quote activity… Check it out!
Robert F. G. Spier, and Donald K. Anderson. “Shakespeare and Farming: The Bard and Tusser.” Agricultural History, vol. 59, no. 3, Agricultural History Society, 1985, pp. 448–61,
Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (Edition of 1580 collated with those of 1573 and 1577. Edited by W. Payne and Sidney J. Herrtage.)