Oisters do justly deserve a full treatice, being so common, and whithall so wholesome a meat; they differ in colour, substance, and bigness; but the best are thick, little and round sheld, not slippery nor flaggy through abundance of a gellied humour, but short, firm, and thick of flesh, riseing up round like a womans breast, being in a manner all belly, and no fins; or at the most having very short fins, of a green colour, and listed about as with a purple haire, which will make them indeed to be justly called Calliblephara, that is to say, The fair eye lidded Oisters…(Thomas Moffatt, 1655)
This week sees Whitstable Oyster Festival, on the North Kent Coast. Somewhat overselling itself, the Festival nevertheless sees a number of stall-holders peddling their craft-made wares and plenty of fresh seafood. As a fan of oysters, it is encouraging to know that back in Shakespeare’s day our expensive shellfish was the food of the common man; the chief theatregoing snacks were cockles, mussels, and oysters. Whitstable has always been famous for its oysters, as several early modern tracts testify through their non-native envy of the port.
Oysters prove an interesting cate. They are used to both describe and negate female sexuality throughout early modern writings; of course, the physical resemblance between the oyster and the vagina is the source of much rich wordplay, and Mark Albert Johnson has noticed the association between ‘beards’, pearls, and privates. The connection is vividly re-imagined in Carol Ann Duffy’s sonnet about Shakespeare’s ‘second-best bed’, Anne Hathaway, in which she imagines that Shakespeare would ‘dive for pearls’. Indeed, Moffatt recalls how ‘in Plinies time they marvelled at an Oister, which might be divided into three morsels, calling it therefore Tridacnon by a peculiar name’, and this multiplicity remains in the seafood’s sexual connotations. Antony sends Cleopatra the ‘treasure of an oyster’, but vows to enhance the ‘petty present’ with ‘kingdoms’, so that ‘all the east…shall call her mistress’. The sensual significance of the gift is matched by its apparent baseness, and there remains a striking contradiction between the ‘treasure’ of the pearl, which marks Cleopatra’s masculine power as a monarch, who requires kingdoms, and the ‘pettiness’ of the pearl, which belies the desires behind Antony’s gift. Both a ‘treasure’ and a ‘petty present’, Antony’s oyster pearl alerts us to its symbolic function as ‘chastity’, reminding us of the many bawdy jokes, from John Donne to John Ford, about the simultaneous esteem and trivialisation of female virginity:
I marvel why the chaster of your sex
Should think this pretty toy called maidenhead
So strange a loss, when being lost, ’tis nothing,
And you are still the same.
(‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, John Ford, c.1633, II.i.9-12)
Similarly, Touchstone jokes in As You Like It that ‘rich honesty dwells like a miser…in a poor house, as your pearl in your foul oyster’ (V.iv.57-8). Both the prize of chastity and ‘foul’ sexuality dwell between the female thighs.
Such doubleness leads us on to the demonisation of working women during the period, including many who were, as Shakespeare’s Richard II disparagingly notes, ‘oyster-wenches’, a group frequently referred to as part of the dirty, immoral, but potentially subversive mob. Richard Brathwaite pulls the comparisons together between a low-class occupation and questionable sexuality when he introduces a shrew in Barnabae Itinerarium:
A Shrow is a continuall dropping, whose actiuitie consists principally in the volubility of an indefatigable tongue; her father was a common Barretter, and her mothers sole note (being the voice of her vocation) eccoed, New Wainflete Oysters…
Her parents’ ridiculed occupations, lawyer and oyster-wench, lead to the ‘monstrous’ shrew. Of course, many theatregoers would have purchased their snacks from somebody exactly like this girl’s mother, as she vended outside of the theatres. Archaeological digs at theatres have revealed a number of oystershells present, providing the audience with a physical prop for the double-entendres of ‘foul oysters’, ‘treasures’, and ‘oyster-wenches’.