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Salty language: herring and intemperate appetites in Shakespeare’s London

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References to herring in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries provide insights into the language of the London streets and reveal something of street-life at the turn of the seventeenth century. Unlike fresh fish (an expensive commodity), smoked and pickled herring was cheap and associated as much with the habits of an ale-drinking underclass as with fasting. More common—readily available and associated with the vulgar—than other fish, preserved herring was integral to the commercial and social life around the Thames. This pervasiveness of the herring, and its urban and social alignments, imbued it with a figurative value. For writers of the period, herring gained currency as a symbol of unmanliness and indiscriminate (sexual) appetites. A stock-in-trade of the taverns, it took in alehouse associations with disorder and sexual liaisons (including prostitution). Herring references uncover the unmistakable whiff of innuendo, revealing playful categories of masculinity, from the sexually exhausted “shotten herring” to interchangeable and ungentlemanly “pickled herring.” Herring deaths (including Thomas Nashe’s description of Robert Greene’s “fatal banquet of Rhenish wine and pickled herring”) underscore that there is no such thing as an innocent herring in the hands of the London writers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-84
Number of pages20
JournalJournal for Early Modern Cultural Studies
Volume19
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019

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  • Salty Language

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