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.
To 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. Although 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.
(Chapter 2, Scene 1, lines 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.
In "Hamlet," 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-age 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." 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.
Kate DeSimone is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners will sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator. First Published July 21, 2012 4:00 AM