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“Ripe” and “rot”: A proverb inAs You Like It andKing Lear


In Act 2, scene 7 ofAs You Like It, the professional Fool Touchstone is observed by the professional cynic Jaques in the act of philosophising about the nature of Time. Touchstone's lugubrious conclusion is that “from hour to hour we ripe ... from hour to hour, we rot.” In more elevated vein, in Act 5, scene 2 ofKing Lear, Edgar remonstrates with his blinded and despairing father, employing the striking and much admired aphorism that “men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/Ripeness is all.” Traditional reaction to these invocations of the verbs “ripe” and “rot” is reverential, but neither editors nor exegetical scholars recognize that by the time Shakespeare juxtaposes these two words, the nexus is an exhausted catchphrase, the most time-honoured of clichés. It occurs at least as early as the C-text ofPiers Plowman, and in Chaucer's prologue toThe Reeve's Tale. No matter how penetrating and original an insight into the human condition it may appear to Shakespeare's nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers and audiences, to Shakespeare's contemporaries it was a platitude. Based uponthe traditional proverb “Soon ripe, soon rotten,” it is ubiquitous in the work of Shakespeare's immediate literary and dramatic precursors, and a favourite with the dramatists of the 1590s. Examples can be found in the works of Wager, Heywood, Robinson, Preston, Florio, Melbancke, Greene, and Dekker. But for them it was an allusion to the workings of Divine Providence: for us, in a secular age, it alludes only to subjective personal fulfilment.

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Ormerod, D. “Ripe” and “rot”: A proverb inAs You Like It andKing Lear . Neophilologus 80, 661–666 (1996).

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  • Human Condition
  • Comparative Literature
  • Historical Linguistic
  • Personal Fulfilment
  • Traditional Reaction