The Literary Gardener – August 2016

Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.
 ~ William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, 1609

Every summer, my husband, Jerry, and I attend a performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and this year I’m looking forward to seeing “The Winter’s Tale,” one of Shakespeare’s later plays. By this time, the renowned playwright and poet was spending much of his time at New Place, his house in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was the market town he grew up in about 100 miles from the bustling streets and theaters of London.

Shakespeare kept gardens and an orchard at New Place, so it’s not surprising that he interwove a lot of plant symbolism in “The Winter’s Tale,” particularly in Act IV where the above quotation appears. In this scene, the sweet, lovely Perdita offers flowers to important guests at the village’s sheep-shearing celebration (one of the guests is her lover’s father, King Polixenes, in disguise).

At first, Perdita presents rosemary and rue, telling Polixenes and his attendant, “Grace and remembrance be to you both, and welcome to our shearing!” In this line, Shakespeare drew upon common knowledge at the time that, according to the “language” of flowers, rosemary signifies remembrance—the herb was often used for funerals—and rue was sometimes called “herb-of-grace.” No doubt, Shakespeare used the fact that rue was also associated with repentance and regret (as in, “He’ll rue the day”) as a double meaning in this passage.

However, the masked King Polixenes isn’t happy with Perdita’s offering of such “flowers of winter,” which he considers a subtle disparagement about his advancing age. (Perhaps it would be like one of my young students gifting me with a box of hair dye to cover up my gray.) So, instead, Perdita attempts to flatter the visitor’s vanity by selecting flowers of middle summer for “men of middle age.”

In referring to lavender, mint, summer savory and sweet marjoram as “hot,” Shakespeare used a gardener’s knowledge that all of these herbs would be flowering and full of aromatic oils under the warm summer sun. In fact, these herbs were recommended for strewing about the floor inside one’s home; when stepped on, the fragrant oils would be released to the olfactory pleasure of all.

The marigolds Perdita speaks of in “The Winter’s Tale” are English (or pot) marigolds, Calendula officinalis, with vibrantly-colored petals that open and close with the rising and setting of the sun. In Shakespeare’s day, pot marigold flowers were valued for their medicinal properties, resulting in associations with health and healing. Dried petals were used for skin irritations, bites, stings, and treating fevers and infections. Tinctures were concocted as a remedy for bubonic plague, a bacterial disease that shut down Shakespeare’s theater in London several times during outbreaks.

Of course, Shakespeare would have been familiar with nuanced meanings associated with marigolds during that time period. This certainly added layers of insight and entertainment for 17th century audiences that cannot be as fully appreciated today.

A bit later, the Bard employed spring-blooming flowers to symbolize youth. Perdita turns to her lover, Prince Florizel, and laments, “I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might become your time of day.” She mentions “daffodils, that come before the swallow dares… violets dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes… pale primroses that die unmarried… bold oxlips and the crown imperial; lilies of all kinds, the flower-de-luce (iris) being one!”

As a gardener, Shakespeare would have known it was the sweet-smelling Viola odorata, native to England, that blooms in the springtime, rather than the “summer violet,” or dog violet, V. riviniana, which is scentless. He would have also known the primrose, Primula vulgaris, another common flower in the English countryside, as a pale yellow-white flower that lasted only a short while. “Bold” oxlips are Primula elatior, the species name meaning “taller” in reference to the plant’s long stem. Crown imperials, Fritillaria imperialis, as well as other flowers in the lily family, were then novelties in England, having arrived from Turkey and Syria sometime after 1580.

Inspired by my upcoming outing to the OSF, I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s Gardens (2016) with beautiful photographs of the gardens Shakespeare enjoyed during his lifetime (he died at the age of 52). The house in which he probably wrote “A Winter’s Tale” is long gone, torn down by a spiteful reverend who despised the disruption caused by visitors wanting to see where the great playwright once lived. However, the garden space is still there, transformed into a 21st century landscape by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

It’s not difficult for me to imagine the Bard wandering among the flowers that once grew in this garden, noting which ones to include in the play I’ll be enjoying more than 400 years later. Can there be any doubt that Shakespeare was a gardener? After all, it was he wrote, “These flowers are like the pleasures of the world.”