Today we got some fresh farmer’s market fruits and vegetables from a neighbor. And today, researching how to use three enormous and very green oranges, I finally understood what had long been one of my favorite neglected Shakespearean lines.
It’s one of those difficult lines for actresses, thanks to pronunciation changes from Shakespeare’s day. Any playgoer who consults his footnote will understand its meaning, but conveying the sense to a nube in the seats is nearly impossible. It’s one of those fruity Shakespearean jokes that are, alas, ripe for the cutting.
In Much Ado About Nothing, poor Claudio has been informed that his Duke has stolen his girl Hero. In fact, the Duke has interceded on Claudio’s behalf, and persuaded Hero to agree to marrying the handsome young soldier. When Claudio’s friends go to collect him so that the Duke can break the good news, Claudio is, understandably, in a sour temper. He puts on a show of indifference—after all, he can’t very well take a stand against his duke—but underneath he’s seething. Hero’s cousin Beatrice explains Claudio’s ambiguous humor to the puzzled Duke in the following words:
The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor
well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and
something of that jealous complexion.
The basic joke, as I mentioned, is explained in the footnote of any solid edition. Beatrice is punning on the word “Seville,” which evidently in Shakespeare’s time must have sounded much closer to “civil” than it now does. “Civil as an orange” would have been grasped by an audience as “Seville, like an orange,” the city in Spain being, presumably, known for oranges then as it is now. (Incidentally, this is an interesting illustration of how changing vowel sounds are rarely so much of an issue as changing accents. If, for example, we now pronounced “Seville” “SEE-vul,” the pun would still be easily rendered in speech. The fact that we say “civil” “SIH-vul” and “Seville” “suh-VILL” is much more problematic.)
So much for the footnote. Claudio is of the same jealous complexion as a Seville orange. Recalling that jealousy is supposed to be green-eyed (itself a Shakespearean coinage—see Iago’s lines to Othello), one naturally supposes that Seville oranges must have arrived in England green, perhaps plucked green from trees by Spanish matadors in the off-season, and shipped to England unripe in order to survive the arduous voyage that even an Armada could not withstand. Some tough fruit, that.
But no. As I learned today, oranges are normally green. I had only been getting half of Beatrice’s joke all these years.
The moral of this story?
(1) Don’t put green oranges in the windowsill to ripen.
(2) Never assume Beatrice is telling a lousy joke.
(3) Always trust a duke named Pedro.
(4) Shakespeare scholars don’t know everything, even the ones who get paid to write footnotes.
(5) Someone should hire me to edit a new edition of Much Ado About Nothing.
(6) We will never really see Shakespeare “the way his audiences saw him.”
(7) Emma Thompson is an amazing actress.