I have been lately working on a garden photography project, which has got me interested in the Shakespearean plant language. Luckily for me, in the past couple of years no less than two books on the subject have been published, with deceptively similar titles: A Shakespearen Botanical by Margaret Willes, and Botanical Shakespeare by Gerit Quealy. Both do essentially the same thing – they list the plants mentioned in Shakespeare, and provide background in the herbology and botany of the Elizabethan era. Willes’s book was published by the Bodleian Library here in Oxford, and she used a 1595 Herbal by John Gerard, a book that Shakespeare probably would have been familiar with, for illustrations.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I almost know Margaret Willes – I met her at the launch of Richard Stokes’ book on English songs couple of years ago in London. That same summer, she also appeared at the Oxford arts fest, talking about this book at the university botanical garden. I now wish that I had paid more attention then – I’m quite fascinated by this subject and by these actually wildly different approaches to it. For each plant, Willes offers a quote and then expands on it, offering both textual and historical background, while the main bulk of Quealy’s book consists of illustrations combined with every quote referring to the plant, the explanations saved to the back. Both approaches work, but make for very different books – Quaely’s is a reference guide of sorts, while Willes’ is something you actually sit down to read. Botanical Shakespeare is ultimately a perfectly good, serviceable book, but both less compelling and less scholarly than A Shakespearean Botanical.
Shakespeare’s probably most famous scene utilising the symbolism of flowers is in Hamlet – Ophelia, broken down by her father’s death and by Hamlet’s cruel desertion of her, wanders in, a suddenly disruptive force with her strange bouquet of flowers. Rosemary and pansies for Laertes, fennel and columbine and rue, given either to Gertrude or Claudius, daisies to Gertrude. Violet she gives to no one, because they died when her father died. The text offers no explanation, but the Elizabethan audience would have probably understood the meaning of each plant from the context they are presented instinctively – rosemary for remembrance, fennel and columbine for foolishness, infidelity and deception, rue for repentance, daisy for purity and innocence, violet for devotion. After Ophelia’s death, Gertrude describes the strange garland of crow flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples found on her body, which has been discovered in water under a willow aslant in it – again each flower is chosen for their meaning. Crow flower, or buttercup, symbolised ingratitude, nettles sting, daisies Ophelia’s innocence and the long purples her awakening sexuality, while the willow itself is a symbol of sadness.
Of course, Shakespeare elsewhere compares Falstaff to a watery pumpkin.
Shakespeare’s interest in botany wouldn’t have been limited to the language of flowers. He uses plant-based poisons; he would have needed to find one that would put Juliet in her death-like slumber and another that would kill Romeo instantly, or indeed what to pour in King Hamlet’s ear. So, there’s definitely a place for books like these two; I might have even married one of these works with modern scientific study on some the aspects of the Shakespearen herbology.