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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: June ::
Which Potato?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1413  Thursday, 7 June 2001

From:           Barrett Fisher <
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Date:           Wednesday, 06 Jun 2001 11:45:10 -0500
Subject:        Which Potato?

In my recent rereading of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" I
encountered the following line from "Troilus and Cressida": "The devil
luxury with his fat rump and potato finger. . ." (5.2).  Curious about
what kind of potato Shakespeare had in mind, I consulted Alexander
Schmidt's "Shakespeare Lexicon," where he confidently asserts the potato
to be Solanum tuberosum (the common potato), first introduced to Europe
in the late 16th century.

I then checked the OED (2nd edition), which distinguishes between the
Solanum tuberosum (the first citation for which is 1597) and the Batatas
edulis (what we now call the sweet potato), which was introduced as a
food earlier than the common potato, was first cited in English in 1555,
was referred to in the Merry Wives of Windsor in 1598, and (most
importantly) was supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

I have not looked at any individual editions of the play, but neither
Bevington nor the Riverside editors draw any distinction, both pointing
out that the potato was thought to be a stimulant to lechery.  However,
the Norton Shakespeare (based on the Oxford edition) does specify in its
gloss that the sweet potato is intended.

If in fact the sweet (or Spanish) potato is the stimulus to lustful
behavior referred to, is the "Shakespeare Lexicon" in error?  Can we be
fairly confident that Shakespeare himself would have made such a
distinction?

Barrett Fisher
Bethel College (MN)

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