William Shakespeare was a playwright, actor and poet during the renaissance period of 1585-1613, who wrote up to 39 plays of comedies, tragedies and romances including Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. He was born in Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, in the west midlands, England where he a grew up and later was said to have attended the Kings new grammar school of King Edward 6th where he studied Latin and classical authors. By the age of 18 William married Anne Hathaway 26 and they had three children together, later Shakespeare purchased a house known as New place, originally built in 1433 by Sir Hugh Clopton and constructed using both brick & timber with impressive gable roofs, ten fire places, two gardens, orchards and barns.
The gardens at New place was believed to be beautifully presented with intriguing and precise formal features filled with trees, herbs and flowers, It is not certain if Shakespeare grew plants in his garden or if he had any influence in the design, but he certainly had a great understanding of plants as well as their significance & symbolism possibly from studying folklore and classical studies. The popularity of Shakespearian style gardens have increased greatly over the years and is now recreated all over the world, brimming with flowers and plants which have been interpreted and defined in the works of William Shakespeare such as roses, tulips, poppies, crocuses, daisies,daffodils, fritillaries and violets, lilies,anemones, hellebores and many more, the layout is usually geometric and based on Elizabethan architecture and garden designs of the period such as boxwood dividers, pathways and seating.
Shakespeare often used plants to represent special meanings in his plays, using up to 175 herbs and flowers depicted throughout his works such as in the comedy ‘A midsummer nights dream’ as follows :
“ I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips & nodding violet grows, quite over canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk roses and eglantine, there sleeps Titania sometime in the night, lull’d in these flowers with dances & delight.”
also Nick bottom a humorous character with a head of an ass is approached by the fairy queen Titania and four fairy attendants, their names symbolize the healing power of plants that are used in herbal remedies and its connection to the mysterious magical illusion of the moonlight which caused many superstitions during the 1500-1600’s.
The names of the fairy servants and their connection to traditional medicine include pease-blossom (pea) a low growing or trailing plant and pod shaped vegetable used to make pease porridge or pea soup during medieval period, the seeds are dried or made into a powder and was applied to the skin to help with skin conditions like acne, it is also cooked as a vegetable or added to salads, bread (powder form) and as a coffee substitute. Mustard seed – mustard plants are commonly used as a spice and to make mustard when mixed with vinegar or other ingredients, it is also used to ease arthritis & muscle pain and to help against the common cold. The two other names include moth also at the time used as a remedy in the home and the other cobweb.
Also in the play Shakespeare uses the phase “Love in idleness” which is the folk name for the wild pansy and its ingredients is believed to make up a love potion mainly for the purpose of Titania to fall deeply in love with the first person she sees, Nick bottom.
Wild pansy (botantical name Viola tricolor) is a low growing creeping plant that grows amongst the wild grasses and countryside of Europe, the flower petals vary in colour from purple, blue, white or yellow usually in two or three toned colours. This plant is also used medicinally to treat epilepsy, problems with the lungs such as bronchitis and the common cold & skin conditions. Wild pansy symbolizes ‘love in Idleness’ because according to Roman mythology Cupid intentionally shoots an arrow towards a virginal priestess of Vesta but missed, instead hitting a pale flower to which the love spell changed the petals to three colours.
In the romantic play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare uses the interpretation of plants to symbolise certain aspects of the story, the rose for instance represents Juliet’s love for Romeo such as “ what’s in a name ? , that which we call a rose by any another name would smell as sweet” her love is restrained when she discovers that Romeo is a Montague and has a long standing feud with her family.
Roses are not only known for their beauty but also grown for their fragrance in perfumes, skin care and as cut flowers. Rose petals and rose hips have medicinal properties and are often used to treat wounds, bruises and rashes when applied to the skin, the tea also helps to soothe a sore throat and ulcers. Their wide range of varieties also make them attractive in the garden, such as the old classical roses, shrub roses, climbing and modern roses, to which there is believed to be up to 300 species and possibly many thousands of cultivated varieties.
In King Lear William Shakespeare refers to a plant by the name of a cuckoo flower, an alternative name for a Ladies smock flower which was used in describing the scene when the daughter of King Lear announces his return from France. “ Crowed with rank fumitor and furrow weeds with burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo flowers, darnel and all the idle weeds that grow in our sustaining corn.” (fumitor-fumeria officinalis)
Ladies smock, Cardamine pratensis grows wild all over Europe and in parts of Asia usually in meadows and close to streams, the flowers are light purple, similar to the colour of lavender on long spikes. Ladies smock is also used to decorate garlands on the 1st of May when celebrating the coming of Spring. The leaves are used medicinally as a remedy for indigestion, to increase hunger and is also good for those with asthma or skin conditions. It was given the name Cuckoo flower because it is believed that this flowers blooms at almost the same time as when the Cuckoo bird appears in Spring.
Rosemary is also used to symbolize love and remembrance in the play Hamlet, Ophelia the daughter of Polonius a chief counsellor is driven to madness after her Fathers death.
Ophelia describes the meaning of plants through her grieving – “there is rosemary that’s for remembrance, pray you, love, remember and there is pansies that’s for thoughts, (Laertes her brother- “a document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted”.) there’s fennel for you & columbine, there’s rue for you and there’s some for me, we may call it a “herb of Grace” O’ Sundays, Oh you must wear your rue with a difference.”
Rue, Ruta graveolens symbolizes regret and can be grown as a herb or as a garden plant or hedge, The leaves are bluish green with a strong musk like scent which can be used as a flavouring in cooking and placed within small flower bouquets, it is also believed that cats dislike the smell. Rue has been gathered & grown since ancient times for its medicinal properties such as to reduce flatulence, improve eyesight, menstrual issues and when added to the skin to aid arthritis, sprains, bone injures and swollen areas.
Other plants, flowers and trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays include: Flowers- cornflower, camomile, carnation, crow flower, fritillaria imperialis, honeysuckle, violet, iris, marigold, peony, narcissus, daisy, daffodil, cowslip, primrose, buttercup, daisy, lavender, lily, orchid, musk rose. Herbs and plants- aloe, balm, blackberries, burdock, bilberry, caraway, fennel, bay, flax,mint, marjoram,clove,gooseberry, nettle, parsley,hemp, ginger, dog berry, hyssop, leek, grape, camomile, ivy, mustard, radish, rhubarb. Trees- almond, apple,apricot, ash, birch,box, cork, date, cedar, hawthorn, holy, lime,mulberry, myrtle, olive, pine, plum, pomegranate, quince, walnut, willow, wormwood, yew.