29 April 2016

Plants in Shakespeare

On the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we take a look at the influence of flowers and gardening in his works.

By Melissa Candy

Rose Garden, RBG Kew

Countryside upbringing

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and his plays reflect his great affinity for flowers and gardening, which has been attributed to this country-dwelling upbringing. 

However, there was much innovation in gardening and botany in Elizabethan London, plus evidence that Shakespeare was also a regular visitor to formal gardens. He would have additionally been aware of the plant information provided by John Gerard’s 1596 herbal, and the gardening ideas of John Parkinson.

Elizabethan gardens

Although identifying plants in Shakespeare can sometimes be difficult, the types of Elizabethan garden that Shakespeare alludes to are well-documented in plans of the time. Elizabethan gardens included fruit, vegetables, and healing herbs, but they were also for pleasure. Many features were designed purely for decoration, or for social purposes such as the arbour. The knot garden had been a distinct feature since Tudor times, being modelled on those popular in France and Italy.

Sweet-smelling herbs

Elizabethan gardening was a well-developed art. The planting of flower gardens was structured to ensure they were always in bloom, with the colours and perfumes complementing each other. Scent was given as much emphasis as the appearance of flowers. There was more appreciation than there is today of sweet-smelling herbs such as camomile being part of the aesthetic delights of a garden, although their culinary and medicinal uses were recognised as well. 

Oberon: 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

[A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene 2]

A  rose by any other name

Roses are referred to around a hundred times by Shakespeare, probably influenced to some extent by their link to the Tudor dynasty as well as the flower’s own obvious merits. Often the reference is to ‘briar’ or, as here, to ‘eglantine’ (now identified as ‘sweet briar’). It is unclear what plant ‘violet’ is as it could refer to any flower at the time.

Woodbine and honeysuckle

‘Woodbine’ is a name still used today, but now to describe very different climbing plants and creepers. It is thought to be ‘honeysuckle’ based on Shakespeare’s descriptions and the identification in the herbals at the time. Later in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania says “so doth the woodbine, sweet honeysuckle entwist”. This seems to be describing honeysuckle as the flowers of the woodbine plant.

The audience would have known that, like many herbs, thyme releases its scent when blown by the wind or if crushed (as here with Titania sleeping on it). Thus it makes sense that it is included in the description of a highly perfumed arbour-like area of a wood.


Leather-coats and crabs

Shallow (to Falstaff): Nay you shall see mine orchard, where, in an arbour, we will eat a last year’s pippin of my own graffing, with a dish of caraways, and so forth. [….]
Davey: There’s a dish of leather-coats for you

Henry IV part 2, IV, act v, scene 3

‘Pippin’ continues to be a popular apple today, and ‘leather-coats’ refers to a type of russet that was popular at the time. ‘Caraways’ refers to a popular dish of apples flavoured with caraway seeds.  As well as those mentioned, 'crabs' (as in crab apple) are referred to in many of Shakespeare's plays. They were popular to eat in Elizabethan times although today thought too bitter and now only generally eaten as a jelly, showing how tastes have changed. The orchard and arbour were important features of the Elizabethan garden. The use of ‘graffing' (grafting) shows Shakespeare’s gardening knowledge, and the concept is used in other plays along with references to pruning such as 'thy pole-clipt vineyard' in The Tempest.

Queen's Garden at Kew

The Queen’s Garden outside Kew Palace only features plants that were known or became known during the 17th century. It is therefore a good place to imagine the garden setting of Shakespeare’s plays, and the plants referred to within them.

 - Melissa Candy -

Library Graduate Trainee

Further reading

All the titles below are available to view at Kew's library:

Ellacome, Rev. Henry N. (1878).The Plant-lore and Garden-craft of Shakespeare.
Gerard, John (1597). The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes.
Guilfoyle, W.R. (1899-1901). Shakespearean Botany Nos.1-24.
Halliwell, Brian (1987). Old Garden Flowers. Bishopsgate Press.
Rydén, Mats (1978). Shakespearean Plant Names. Almqvist & Wiksell.
Parkinson, John (1629). Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris.
Seager, H.W. (1896). Natural History in Shakespeare’s Time. Elliot Stock.
Singleton, Esther (1923). The Shakespeare Garden. The Century Co.

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