I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.
Titania’s bower employs a gardening technique known as pleaching,
where branches of various trees and vines are interlaced. This
method was all the rage at fashionable Elizabethan estates, and
the poet cunningly uses the meshed vines as a metaphor for
embracing arms, and for the lush sensuality of the fairy
thou, and I will wind thee in my arms,” says Titania to her
lover Nick Bottom. “So doth the woodbine the sweet
honeysuckle/Gently entwist.” (4.1.40-43) A floral potion has
blinded her to the fact that Bottom has the head of an ass.
Another floral elixir will restore her to her senses.
Hamlet (4.5.175-183), the doomed Ophelia uses flowers to express
her recriminations against Denmark’s base and scheming royals.
Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized the symbolism of
these plants, and may have appreciated that Ophelia’s gifts were
a subtle rebuke to the recipients. Faithless Gertrude receives
rue (repentance), treacherous Claudius receives fennel (flattery
and deceit). Ophelia beseeches her brother Laertes with a gift
of rosemary (faithfulness, remembrance) to solve their father’s
any gardener, Shakespeare was attuned to the change of seasons,
and their accompanying flowers. “At Christmas I no more desire
a rose/Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth.” (Love’s
Labour’s Lost, 1.1.105-106)
Greeting her middle aged visitors in A Winters Tale, Perdita
immediately associates their ages with the time of year, and
bestows appropriate tributes:
Here’s flow’rs for you:
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjorum,
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun,
And with him rises weeping.
These are flow’rs
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.
In Cymbeline, Arviragus decorates his sister’s grave with many
flowers, but also, more poignantly, with “furr’d moss, besides.
When flow’rs are none,/ To winter-ground thy corse.”
all gardeners, Shakespeare knew about weeds and noxious insects,
frequently using them as metaphors for political and moral
decay. Under the inept rule of Richard II, “Our sea-walled
garden, the whole land,/Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers
chok’d up.” (3.4.43-44)
Hamlet and King Lear, weeds are emblematic of madness and
despair. Innocent, mad Ophelia dies garlanded by
“crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples.” (5.1.169)
King Lear, alone and bereft, decks himself with “rank fumitor
and furrow-weeds,/ With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flow’rs,/
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow/In our sustaining
sonnets, where Shakespeare’s frequent themes are the
timelessness of beauty and the brevity of human life, roses
reign supreme. Emblematic of feminine loveliness, the rose’s
gradations of color could suggest blushes of modesty or shame,
or the flush of anger. Its rare beauty, brief blooming period,
and susceptibility to frosts and canker worm also make the
flower symbolic of human mortality and frailty. Roses play a
pivotal role in Henry VI Part I, which dramatizes the genesis of
the War of the Roses, where the white rose of York was pitted
against the red rose of Lancaster. The deadly feud was resolved
with a marriage between the two houses, and to this day the red
and white Tudor Rose remains a symbol of the British crown.
Shakespeare garden can be as grand as the one in the poet’s home
in Stratford on Avon, but any garden will be enhanced by a few
of Shakespeare’s favorites. Be sure your Shakespeare garden, or
garden nook, includes a few of the following.
Primrose: Primrose’s early blooms and rich colors bring
cheer to the spring garden, but will also quickly fade and
wither. The “primrose path of dalliance” (Hamlet 1.3.50) is
Ophelia’s image of a carefree life of indulgence. Primrose
favors part sun and a moist location.
Violets: Like the primrose, violets are a frequent metaphor
for youth, and fleeting beauty. Their perfume is ephemeral but
haunting, and the flowers are sturdy spring perennials. Violets
will spread rapidly in moist, light shade.
Daffodil: Daffodils, that “come before the swallow dares,
and take/The winds of March with beauty” (A Winter’s Tale
4.4.118-120) are a welcome and reasonably deer resistant
addition to any garden. Plant in clusters or intersperse early
blooming varieties such as February Gold in a green lawn for a
wildflower meadow effect.
Pansy: Shakespeare’s pansy is not the large hybrid we know
today, but the smaller, frequently self seeding Viola tricolor,
or Johnny Jump -Up. Also called hearts-ease, or
love-in-idleness, this may have been the flower whose potion
enchanted Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pansies prefer
cool, moist weather, and will fade with summer’s heat. Tiny,
resilient Johnny Jump -Ups are true to their name and will
return year after year, frequently forming colonies.
Iris: Also known as flower de luce or fleur de lis, the
iris has long been a symbol of French royalty. When courting
the French princess Katherine, Henry V appropriately addresses
his future bride as “my fair flower de luce.” (5.2.210) Tall
iris is a sturdy backbone plant in the perennial garden. Set
iris rhizomes just below the soil surface and divide them every
Carnation/Dianthus: Dianthus, or gillyflower, is disdained
by Perdita in A Winter’s Tale for its tendency to self
hybridize, making the color difficult to predict. Its pungent
spicy smell (its name is thought to derive from the Latin word
for cloves) made it a favorite for Elizabethan nosegays. In any
of its many variants, this plant is a colorful addition to a
sunny, well-drained garden.
Marigold: Shakespeare’s marigold was most likely not our
modern Tagetes genus, but Calendula officinalis, or pot
marigold. A feature beloved by the poet was this flower’s
ability to close at night and reopen in the morning. Pot
marigold is a vigorous sun lover. Though perennial in warmer
climates, it is best treated as an annual in our region. It
readily self seeds.
Honeysuckle: Due to its habit of entwining itself around
any support, the honeysuckle is the emblem of affection. It was
popular in Shakespeare’s time for bowers, trellises and covered
paths. Intensely fragrant, even a single honeysuckle on a
trellised wall or arbor can perfume an entire garden in early
Lily: Like the rose, the lily is sacred to the Virgin Mary,
and Shakespeare uses it as an emblem of perfection. “To gild
refined gold, to paint the Lily/…is wasteful and ridiculous
excess.” King John (4.2.11-16) Shakespeare’s lily was most
likely the white, or Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). Purchase
these already in bloom at a spring market, or plant the bulbs in
late summer to bloom the following spring.
Rose: Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsman may have been
speaking for her author when she declared “Of all flow’rs/
Methinks a rose is best.” (2.2.135-136) If you are a fan of
the histories, then a white rose of York and a red rose of
Lancaster are right for your garden. If you prefer the
comedies, opt for a less formal sweet briar (eglantine in
Shakespeare’s day) or a climbing musk rose.
Crabapple: If your Shakespeare garden needs a tree, make it
a crabapple. Crabapples were an essential feature of
Elizabethan punches, where the roasted fruit was cast sizzling
into a heady mix of ale, spices, and sugar. Crabapples are a
compact tree that will not overwhelm a small space, and will
provide delicate flowers, followed by colorful fruit which is
extremely attractive to birds.
Shakespeare’s herbs could be the subject of their own garden.
Be sure to include thyme, for Titania’s bower, rue for Queen
Gertrude, rosemary for remembrance, and lavender for sheer
beauty and bracing fragrance. Marjoram was an important salad
herb in Shakespeare’s day, and fennel a popular accompaniment to