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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Elizabethan knot garden

Object 10 - Stephanie Appleton, doctoral reseacher at the University of Birmingham, explores the significance of the Elizabethan knot garden.

Stephanie Appleton
Susanna and the Elders
Susanna and the Elders, attributed to the school of Frans Floris, c.1550

This image shows a sixteenth-century painting which hangs in Nash’s House, one of the properties cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It probably illustrates the rather racy story of Susanna and the Elders, originally part of the Old Testament but axed from the English Bible around the time this picture was created. Today’s blog is not about this story, however, but is concerned with the setting for this amorous encounter – the garden. A typical Elizabethan knot garden can be seen in the background of the painting, along with a bower walkway, into which a couple is strolling.

In Shakespeare’s England, the garden was often seen as an extension of a property, akin to an extra ‘room’ which just happened to be outdoors. In fact, its mixture of open and covered spaces made it the ideal place to retreat in search of privacy or seclusion. For most Elizabethans, life indoors was never truly ‘private’ in our modern sense of the word, with servants and family members sharing bedchambers, and crude building techniques often resulting in holes or chinks between rooms or even between neighbouring houses, providing perfect opportunities for eavesdropping! By comparison, the openness of the garden meant that private conversations could be held with confidence, as the ability to see anyone approaching ruled out this risk of being overheard. Furthermore, bowers and covered walkways as shown in the painting were ideal for arranging romantic liaisons or perhaps just for seeking solitude.

Shakespeare exploits the comedic potential of the early modern garden to great effect in Much Ado About Nothing, in which Beatrice and Benedick become subject to their friends’ endeavours to make them fall in love. In Act 2 Scene 3 Benedick hides in an arbour to eavesdrop on Claudio and Don Pedro, not realising that they have discovered his hiding place and that their talk of Beatrice is designed to be overheard. Beatrice then unwittingly receives the same treatment from Hero and Ursula, with Hero urging her waiting woman Margaret to fetch Beatrice and “ ... Say that thou overheard’st us, / And bid her steal into the pleachèd bower / ... There will she hide her / To listen our propose.” (3. 1. 6 – 12)

Beatrice, like Benedick before her, is then subjected to a staged conversation about Benedick’s love, all the while being unaware that her ‘secret’ hiding place in the bower is not so secret, after all. The ensuing action of the play sees the couple successfully brought together by the machinations of their friends; a happy resolution to an episode which highlights how the early modern garden was more than just a decorative showpiece, but a space full of possibilities for interaction and intrigue too.