I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxslips 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. ~ A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare’s frequent allusion to botany in his plays and poetry reveals the playwright’s extensive knowledge and understanding of plant life. His use of horticultural imagery-simile, metaphor, analogy were not mere literary devices but illustrations of Elizabeth and Jacobean social life.
He knew the power of certain plants to elicit emotion and propel a story forward. Especially in the 16th century, his contemporaries would have known the meanings of individual plants and, thus, caught on right away. They knew the tales behind the plants and used them for medicinal purposes, and so did Shakespeare.
For example, poppies contain narcotic properties to induce drowsiness while parsley improves the immune function.
Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday. ~ Othello
Rosemary enhances memory and concentration, and thyme can treat various symptoms and complaints such as sore throats.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
Love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. ~ Hamlet
Mine eyes smell Onions, I shall weep anon: Good Tom Drum, lend me a handkercher.
~ All’s Well that Ends Well
Shakespeare refers to nearly 200 plants borne of a knowledge from keen observation of his childhood playground in his mother’s kitchen and physic garden of herbs and medicinal plants like thyme and hyssop. He grew up learning botany and plant lore and gardening methods in the Elizabethan era.
‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant Nettles or sow Lettuce, set Hyssop, and weed up Thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs and distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. ~ Othello
Costumed docent portraying Mary Arden Shakespeare at Croft House
As playwright in the home he shared with his wife, he would have looked up from his desk to see a working garden and farmyard with chickens and pigs, cows and stables, not to mention flowers such as lavender, pansies, violets, roses.
Roses appear in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets from 96 times; lilies, only 28. Roses serve as metaphor for beauty, elegance, love, softness. Lilies indicate elegance with innocence and purity.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew; or did
I wonder at the lily’s white,
Or praise the deep vermillion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those. ~ Sonnet 98
Flowers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
But roses also serve as metaphor in historical references, such as Henry IV. Here, Shakespeare has the Earl of Warwick refer to the combined red Tudor rose and the white Yorkist rose before the alliance of the two Houses:
This brawl today
Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden
Shall send, between Red Rose and White,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night. ~ Henry VI
Pruning, too, plays a metaphoric role in the history plays. The gardener in Richard II is ignorant of politics, but he does understand horticulture. On the surface, his speech seems to be a list of chores but soon becomes obvious it’s a veiled call for Bolingbroke to remove the king:
Go bind thou up young dangling apricocks,
Which like unruly children make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.
“Sire” refers to the king, and “unruly children” to Bolingbroke’s rebels who are like heavy fruit bending and weighing down the monarchy until it snapped:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs,
Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of two fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government
after the king’s fall “like a leaf” because he had not “so trimmed and dressed his land / As we this garden!”
On the other hand, the lines “Cut off the heads of two fast growing sprays / That look to lofty in our commonwealth” makes me think of Richard III’s order a century later. Is there no more shocking metaphor for the two little boy princes, shut up in the Tower and beheaded? Better still to prune the perpetrator, me thinks.
Perhaps a bit of romance will lighten our mood:
The summer’s ﬂower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that ﬂower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. ~ Venus and Adonis
and lead us to practical matters:
Though other things grow fair against the sun,
Yet fruits that blossom ﬁrst will ﬁrst be ripe. ~ Othello
Come my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers; they hold up Adam’s profession. ~ Hamlet
Speaking of Hamlet, Ophelia gathers a bouquet of herbs and flowers well known to Elizabethans:
There’s fennel for you, and columbine.
There’s rue for you; and here’s some
For me: we may call it herb of grace a’ Sundays.
You may wear your rue with a difference.
There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets,
But they withered all when my father died.
After she drowns, Queen Gertrude laments:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purple that
Liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, and envious sliver broke; when down her
Fell in the weeping brook.
‘Ophelia’ (1851-52) by John Everett Millais © DEA Picture Library/Getty Images
Lest we grow too morbid, we end with a Twelfth Night quote:
Like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets.