Hedging One’s Bets

anotherhedgeOne of Shakespeare’s most irritating scamps is the rascally Autolycus, a peddler and trickster-thief whose carryings on slow down the progress of The Winter’s Tale, with its sublime conclusion in which queen Hermione seems to return from the dead.

The Winter’s Tale is a play about a king given to paranoid delusions and capricious anger, with the resulting loss of life. It’s a sadder play than King Lear. I think that’s because it’s a comedy. (Yes, yes, a romance, which is a comedy without laughs.)

There’s a springtime moment in the play, somewhere out in the Sicilian countryside, where Autolycus says that he’s going to “look upon the hedge.” I first saw it in a college production, where a friend playing Autolycus mimed emphatically. Everyone in the audience understood that Autolycus was taking a leak.

A leak is only one of the things that can happen behind, or with or in or among, a hedge. The hedge is a protective device, a landscape feature, and a demarcation of space. By metaphorical extension, “to hedge one’s bets” is to wager cautiously, or to secure an exit strategy should a plan not come to fruition.  In its 2011 draft update, the Oxford English Dictionary cites an example instancing stars of Indian cinema who, “to hedge their bets, … usually work on three or four films at the same time.”

In combinatory forms, the word hedge has, among other uses, a long history of signalling contempt. In this usage, the hedge is a place of last refuge for those engaging in dodgy or otherwise desperate interactions. Thus, to make one’s home under a hedge or, worse, to do business there, could make you a hedge-poet, a hedge-lawyer, a hedge-curate, or even a hedge-whore. 

Today our most common use of hedge is probably in the term hedge fund, which is a financial opportunity that raises capital and eyebrows. The OED supplies us with this usage example from a New Yorker piece (2002): “Although plenty of sane men and women run hedge funds, the funds seem to have been designed for manic personalities.”  

OK, that’s not the most common use of hedge, at least not just now. In response to the Comey firing, reported The Washington Post, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was spotted “huddling with his staff near a clump of bushes and then behind a tall hedge,” presumably to avoid reporters and not for the reasons Autolycus required.

The saga was picked up in Britain by The Independent, which ran with the headline “Did Sean Spicer really hide in the bushes to avoid White House reporters?,” the article’s body copy then subtly revoicing the narrative for British ears, so that now Mr. Spicer was “seeking refuge in the safety of a nearby hedgerow.”

In remarkably still-leafy England, hedgerows remain part of the landscape and the culture, shaping the country’s geography, providing safety for livestock, habitation for birds and other small creatures, and offering foreign tourists driving challenges we rarely encounter in the U.S.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, Robert Frost reminded us long ago, and it goes for hedgerows, too. In relieving himself against the hedge, observes Oxford professor John Pitcher in a note to his edition of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s roguish Autolycus “expresses his contempt for all boundaries set by owners (hedges around property) and for authority.”

The hedge is a wall of sorts, at least when it isn’t an evasion, or nature’s latrine, or a hidey hole for persons charged with impossible tasks. Alas, managing leaks, as well as clarifying explanations from his boss, is part of a press secretary’s portfolio of responsibilities.

So we have the Monty Pythonesque-sounding Incident of the Shrubbery. I’m not taking odds on the outcome.


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