The Great Bard turns 450 today, April 23 (allegedly, as only his baptism on 26 April is recorded) and, with Bard-like symmetry, it was also the day of his death in 1616. More than any other poet or playwright of his time, Shakespeare used plants, gardens and gardening in his works, to set the scene and create hundreds of metaphors that still enrich our language and our lives.
When I think of Shakepeare, so many images of plants and gardens spring immediately to my mind, ingrained there by years of secondary school study of his plays. At the time, I chafed a little under the laborious way Shakespeare was taught, but to now have so many glorious quotes rolling through my mind makes it (at least in retrospect) entirely worth the pain.
I think of how Birnham wood came to Dunsinane Hill, causing the undoing of wicked MacBeth:
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.
of how poor Ophelia expressed her mad grief to Hamlet:
There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end,–
Of the mad capers through the woods in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Lysander says to Hermia:
Fair love, you faint with wandering in the wood;
And to speak troth, I have forgot our way:
We’ll rest us, Hermia, if you think it good,
And tarry for the comfort of the day.
or as Oberon tells Puck:
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
Every Shakespeare play you read or watch is full of plant and gardening references, showing an intimate acquaintance with gardens and the natural landscape. Although it’s unlikely Shakespeare ever gardened himself, he clearly understands its importance to people and how it can be used as a metaphor for so many things we experience in our lives.
When Ophelia descends into madness, she retreats into a world of plants and flowers, Desdemona sings of the sycamore tree and green willow as she waits for Othello (and her death at his hand), Warwick in Henry VI talks of the cedar “under whose shade the ramping lion slept” and, the most revealing of all, from the gardener in Richard II:
O, what pity is it,
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty; superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.
There’s a wonderful old book by the Rev Henry N Ellacombe, M.A. called The Plant-Lore & Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, which you can now read online. As he says, Shakespeare’s descriptions are “thoroughly fresh and real; they tell of the country and of the outdoor life he loved, and they never smell of the study lamp.” And that “when he names a plant or flower, he does so not to show his own knowledge, but because the particular flower or plant is wanted in the particular place in which he uses it.” Whether you love plants, or Shakespeare, or hopefully both, this little book is a joy to read.
And commemorate today with a heathy dose of Shakespeare while you garden! As the gravedigger says in Hamlet:
Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession.