Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Fig in Literature

Driven as I was to cook with figs when they arrived in my organic box a few weeks ago I knew I was on safe ground with them as far as literature was concerned since I had just finished teaching Antony and Cleopatra in which Cleopatra has the poisonous snake that will kill her brought to her concealed in a basket of figs.

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur (1871-1934); I wonder if the basket on the right, with greenery emerging from it, is supposed to be the figs

Of course in Shakespeare's play the figs are simply there as a diversionary ruse, and are not eaten at all, so I embarked on my quest to find what literary record there might be of their consumption.

Going back to the beginning of time, it has been suggested that the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which brought about their Fall, was a fig - though, readers of this blog may recall that it has also been suggested that it could have been a quince or an apricot.  However, in the fig's favour, when Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, and their eyes were opened, 'and they knew that they were naked ...they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.'  So, whether or not the fig was the forbidden fruit, there were evidently figs growing in the Garden of Eden.

Apart from the figs in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare does include references to figs in other plays.  In A Midsummer Night's Dream Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, who has been bewitched and fallen in love with the donkey-eared Nick Bottom, tells her fairy retinue to look after her new love by providing him with all manner of delicious fruit:

Be kind and courteous to this gentleman;
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes;
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;  (Act III, Scene 1)

However, most of Shakespeare's other fig references are metaphorical ones, with the word 'fig' being used as a derogatory term to contradict something that someone has said - when used in this way the word was apparently often accompanied by a vulgar gesture of shooting the thumb between the first and second fingers.  An example of this use can be found in Act I, Scene 3 of Othello where the villain Iago dismisses his side-kick, Roderigo's, self-pitying complaint that he cannot help being so fond of Othello's new wife, Desdemona, claiming it is in his "virtue" (nature) to be this way with the retort, 'Virtue?  A fig!  'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus'.

A later English writer who refers to figs is D. H. Lawrence in his poem 'Figs', from the collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers published in 1923.  The poem - which you can read in its entirety at - was included, in an edited version, in Ken Russell's film of Lawrence's Women In Love: the character  Rupert Birkin, speaks the lines to a group of diners, whilst Hermione Roddice eats a fig.  The poem begins by describing two ways to eat a fig - the 'proper way' and the 'vulgar way' - and then explores the idea of the secrecy of the fig, an allusion I suppose to the fact that from the outside the fig does not look like anything of significance - its true beauty and delight lie within.

And perhaps not surprisingly - this is D. H. Lawrence after all - he then makes a link between the fig and women:

It was always a secret
That's how it should be, the female is always a secret.

The Italians he notes - rather scathingly - make a link between the fig and the 'female part' but Lawrence's interest lies rather more generally in the idea that women do well if they, like the fig, and like Eve who once once she 'knew in her mind that she was naked / ...quickly sewed fig-leaves', keep their innermost essence concealed.  However, Lawrence bemoans the fact that concealment is no longer the order of the day for most women and concludes that, just as ripe, burst figs, will not keep, so women ruin themselves once they reveal themselves to the world.

Whether it is the fruit that caused the Fall, a device to conceal a suicide weapon or a metaphor for female behaviour and sexuality, the fig has played an interesting and multi-faceted role in literature.

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