The theme of gardens is one which is very important in Shakespeare's plays. It is thought that he used books such as John Gerard's Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes to learn about plants, their use and meaning and from this added the many plant references which appear in the plays. There are 29 scenes set in gardens. The garden setting lends itself to romantic scenes, comic scenes and even talk of politics and discussions of national importance.
In Richard II (Act III Scene IV) the Queen and her Lady conceal themselves in the garden and overhear the Gardener and his assistant talking about the deaths of Wiltshire Bushy and Green. The Gardeners’ tasks become a metaphor for the state of the nation.
He that hath suffered this disordered
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf.
The weeds which his broad spreading leaves did shelter,
That seemed in eating him to hold him up,
Are plucked up, root and all by, Bolingbroke-
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy Green.
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live.
The subject of the condition of the country brought out by the King’s misgovernment is expressed by the gardener and his assistant:
When our sea-walled garden, the whole
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome fruits
Swarming with caterpillars...
...Oh! what pity is it
That he had not so trimmed and dressed 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 with sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself.
The disordered knots are the flower-beds of the knot garden which were marked out in with mathematical precision to create ordered patterns.
It is often in gardens in Shakespeare’s comedies that characters choose to conceal themselves from each other,
have overheard conversations and misunderstandings. This happens in Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night. In Twelfth Night, Act II Scene V, it is in the garden that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian conceal themselves in a ‘box-tree’ to watch Malviolio’s response to the forged letter.
Get ye all three into the box-tree: Malvolio’s
Coming down this walk. He has been yonder i’ the sun
Practising behaviour to his own shadow this half
hour. Observe him, for the love of mockery, for I
know this letter will make a contemplative idiot of
him. Close, in the name of jesting! Lie thou there, for
here comes the trout that must be caught with
Hamlet, Act IV Scene V
There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance:
Pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s
for thoughts. ...
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 where 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.
This scene shows the various meanings that flowers and plants had how Shakespeare used them in his work. Many of these he may have found in Gerard's Herbal, or other herbals at the time. Here are some of the plants mentioned in the speech:
Rosemary: The rosemary is not a native of Britain, but of the south coast of Europe. It was a very early addition to England. In Shakespeare’s time it was high in favour for its evergreen leaves and fine aromatic scent, remaining a long time after picking, so long that both leaves and scent were considered everlasting. It was the favourite evergreen whenever the occasion required an emblem of constancy and perpetual remembrance, such as weddings and funerals. It also was used in medicine.
Pansies: Grows commonly in cultivated fields and gardens; varies much in size, and is generally of a pale yellow colour, mixed with purple and white.
Fennel: A well-known plant that grows on wasteland. It has a property of clearing the sight. Ophelia gives the fennel to the king, to clear his sight, as the rosemary was presented to Laertes to aid his memory.
Columbines: It grows in woods and is cultivated in our gardens, it is thought to have no property or virtue.
Rue: The name Rue is also a word meaning sorrow or remorse. Therefore Rue is the Herb of Repentance which is also why it is known as the Herb of Grace. Another native of the coast of the Mediterranean, it became one of the earliest occupants of the English herb garden. Its strong aromatic smell, and bitter taste, with the blistering quality of the leaves, soon established its character as a heal-all.
Daisy: Many writers since Shakespeare have overlooked daisies and in the 18th century they were considered too lowly to be noticed at all until Burns and Wordsworth. Daisies grow everywhere and are resilient.
Violets: There are many different types of violet but it is the purple sweet-scented violet which Shakespeare alludes to. It is also referred to as ‘lowly down’ and has the character of lowliness combined with sweetness which gives it charm. It is a symbol of meekness and humility. They have joyful associations as being signs of winter passing and brighter days are near. However they have also always been associated with death, especially the death of the young. This came from the fact that they saw the opening of the year but were cut off before the full beauty of summer had come. Laertes wishes that violets will spring from the grave of Ophelia. It was also used as a useful medicinal plant.