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Shakespeare Flowers & Gardens

Gardens and flowers play key roles in Shakespeare plots

By Kate DeSimone ©2012
Penn State Master Gardener


William Shakespeare died in 1616 and nearly four centuries later some still debate the authorship of his plays.  Two things, however, are certain:  this author was an unparalleled literary genius, and he was also, quite likely, a gardener. Gardens and flowers abound in his plays.  Young people flee from the social constraints of the city into the liberating countryside.  Intrigue, romance, and comic plots are set in motion in walled gardens, labyrinths, shady bowers, and on rose-vined balconies.

Shakespeare gardens were more than just a setting, and flowers more than a simple adornment.  He often used them as a way of understanding the world, and of illustrating complex truths about his plots and his characters.   Though he lived in the cosmopolitan world of Elizabethan London, the flowers lavished throughout his works are frequently those of his country boyhood:  daffodils, honeysuckle (“woodbine”), carnations (“gillyflowers”), daisies, lilies, and, above all, roses. 


In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woodland bower of fairy queen Titania is a ravishing mix of color, form, and fragrance:

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.

(2.1.249-254)

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 kingdom.

 

“Sleep 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.

Garden viewed through an archway

In 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 murder.

Like 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.

(4.4.103-108)

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.” (4.2.228-229)

Like 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)

In 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 corn.”  (4.4.3-6)

In the 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.

A 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.

Daffodils

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 few years.

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. 

marigolds

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 summer.

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. 

Lilies

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.

Crabapple

Herbs 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 fish. 


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