“A plague o’ these pickle herring”: from London drinkers to European stage clown

Katritzky, M. A. (2014). “A plague o’ these pickle herring”: from London drinkers to European stage clown. In: Renaissance Shakespeare/Shakespeare Renaissances: Proceedings of the Ninth World Shakespeare Congress, World Shakespeare Congress Proceedings, University of Delaware Press; copublished with Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 159–168.

URL: http://www2.lib.udel.edu/udpress/renaissanceshak.h...


In late sixteenth-century Southwark, Flemish pickled herring achieved a reputation as a notorious promoter of unbridled social drinking, whose English reputation was such that the impetus for the naming of the theatrical role of Pickelhering clearly came neither directly nor solely from the fish. The seventeenth-century stage name “Pickelhering” does not simply reflect vague pan-European carnivalesque links between foolery and pungent foods, but complicates late medieval European Lenten and culinary connotations with more recent and murky London associations. Peter van Durant’s will of 1584 identifies the place and time of Pickelhering’s origins as a name quite precisely to the Pickle Herring quarter of Shakespearean Southwark. Gabriel Harvey’s sustained mockery of the alleged circumstances of Robert Greene’s death ensured that the nickname of this popular Flemish brewer, perpetuated in the name of a Southwark quarter with a high immigrant Flemish population, sealed the area’s legendary reputation for sinful—even fatal—extremes of alcoholic excess associated with the gluttonous consumption of preserved fish specialities. Use of the term “pickle(d) herrin (s),” by writers such as Harvey, Rowlands, Dekker, and Shakespeare, precedes the naming of the European stage clown created by English actors on north European stages in the seventeenth century’s second decade. However, it refers not simply to the fish, but to specifically Southwark lifestyle associations of heavy social drinking, alluding both to the clownish, red-nosed, boisterous folly of the Pickle Herring district’s heavy drinkers, and the Dutchmen who provided their beer and its favored accompanying food, the Flemish pickled herring.

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