Lope de Vega, William Shakespeare, and the “tall poppy” Allegory

A Study on the Greek and Roman Narratives in Western Literature

By Antonio Herreria Fernandez, Graduate Teaching Associate, Division of Spanish and Portuguese, School of International Letters & Cultures, ASU

This essay aims to explore an allegory that is shared by both Lope and Shakespeare at the end of the sixteenth century in two different plays: Richard the Second by Shakespeare (1597), and The Bell of Aragon by Lope (Circa 1598). Both plays share the tall poppy allegory, which is applied within the framework of the “favorite” and its relation to the concept of statesman, exemplified by Castiglione in The Courtier (1528).

The tall poppy allegory has its foundation in the works of Herodotus,1 where he follows the life of tyrant Periander. In this specific story, Periander sends a messenger to Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus, to ask for advice on how to remain in power. Thrasybulus does not answer the messenger but instead guides him through a field, cutting off all of the tallest ears of wheat he could see, destroying the best and richest parts of the crop. After doing this, Thrasybulus sent the messenger away, who in turn told Periander what he had witnessed. Periander, following the allegory, destroyed the outstanding citizens.

This story will be evoked by Aristotle in his Politics,2 where he considers the advantages for tyrannies and democracies to exercise such a practice, and later by Livy, in his History of Rome,3 transforming the character of Periander into Tarquinius Sextus, yet maintaining the same event.

Centuries later, the same allegory will be described in Charlemagne (883-884), written by Notker the Stammererand and The Monk of Saint Gall.4 In the event, King Charlemagne sends a messenger to ask for advice of his son Pepin, who has become a monk. Pepin guides the messenger to a garden where he cut the tallest ears, telling him the following: “Send him no message at all, except what I am doing. I am digging up useless weeds, so that useful vegetables may grow more freely.” Charlemagne understood and killed the prominent nobles that were revolting against his rule.

The next reflection of the allegory will be in the Spanish legend The Bell of Huesca. We believe Charlemagne is its literary precedent. In this legend, Charlemagne is replaced by Ramiro II, adding the scene of the bell to the allegory. Menéndez Pelayo and Menéndez Pidal overlook the connection with the Carolingian tradition, connecting the legend only to the classical works. On the other hand, the literary critic Manuel Alvar correctly links the work with the Carolingian tradition, but without any supporting evidence.

This legend surfaces as a romance during the 12th century and continues in two different traditions, historical chronicles and romances. The chronicles are represented in the Chronicle of San Juan de la Peña (1370), the Valerio de las historias escolásticas de España (1462), by Diego Rodríguez de Almela, and the Annals of the Crown of Aragon (1562), by Jerónimo Zurita. The romances, on the other hand, will reemerge in the Segunda parte de la silva de romances (1550), from Esteban de Nájera, and in Don Ramiro de Aragón (1584), from Lorenzo Sepúlveda. As we observe, the trope of the tall poppies is well known in Spanish literature.

This trope will appear again in Shakespeare and Lope. The first edition of Richard II was published in 1597, while Lope’s Campana de Aragón was written between 1598 and 1599.5 Shakespeare uses the tall poppy allegory twice in his play, and it becomes the axis though which the play moves. The first time, the tall poppy allegory is expressed through the conversation of the gardeners, who explain why Richard II was deposed, while the second time, the allegory is used through the voice of the Duke of York,6 to dissuade his son from rebelling against the new King.

Lope, in contrast, uses the well-known legend of the Bell of Huesca, whose climax is the tall poppy allegory, to compose his Bell of Aragon. In the allegory in question, Ramiro II sends a messenger to his advisor Leonardo, the Abbey of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières, in France. There, the Abbey goes into a small garden and cuts the tallest flowers and grasses, sending the messenger back to Ramiro II. Ramiro in turn summoned his nobles to display the bell he had commissioned. When the nobles arrived Ramiro II ordered them to be beheaded and hung from the bell. When the bell was rung, its chimes were heard throughout the kingdom.

The use of the shared allegory by both Shakespeare and Lope, within the same years, substantiates the connection between their plays. In this context, the Bell of Aragon falls within the “comedias de privanza,” where the favorite, or the one wanting to become a favorite, attempts to advance himself in the eyes of the King and the common people. Richard the II, on the contrary, has an ambivalent projection. On the one hand, it promoted the figure of the favorite against Queen Elizabeth I, who said referring to the play: “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” On the other, it showed the dubious consequences of rebelling against the Queen.

Both plays revolve around the tall poppy allegory, articulating the moral values implicitly outlining how to be a desirable “statesman.” This aspect gains importance if we observe that during the 16th and early 17th century the queens and kings were not, in our sense of the word, absolute. Certainly, both Elizabeth Tudor and Felipe II relied very heavily on their advisers. Hence, the significance of the monarch’s own “Tall Poppy” would have been obvious to Lope’s and Shakespeare’s theatrical audiences. This allegory and its use in early modernity has not been studied in depth. It is an aspect that we aim to continue exploring. The importance of this allegory does not stop with Lope and Shakespeare, but became part of the social idiomatic repertoire in the centuries that followed. Do tall poppies represent excellence? And are we afraid of excellence?

1. [Histories (Book 5, 92f). ]
2. [(1284a)]
3. [(Book I)]
4. [They are believed to be the same person.]
5. [S. Griswold S. Morley and Courtney Bruerton in Cronología de las comedias de Lope de Vega (1968), based in the style of the verses, state that the play was written between 1598 and 1600. See page 239.]
6. [“Well, bear you well in this new spring of time, lets you be cropp’d before you come to prime”]