Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Shakespeare's Gardening Tips

We don't know what kind of gardener Shakespeare was, but we know he could talk like one. Judging from his plays and poems, he knew the names of 5,364 species of plants and herbs. (I made that number up.) The scholar Carolyn Spurgeon wrote that for Shakespeare, "One occupation, one point of view, above all others, is natural . . . that of a gardener; watching, preserving, tending and caring for growing things, especially flowers and fruit" (Shakespeare's Imagery, pub. 1935). She was right. So, in this growing-season, it might be worthwhile to read what the Master Gardener had to say on the subject.

First of all, I should say that Shakespeare believed the Master Gardener to be God. And as a good monarchist, he thought the king of a domain should imitate God and act like a gardener to his subjects. But we can read past the political allegory of his famous "King as Gardener" comments in Richard II and derive some helpful tips about actual gardening. In the relevant scene, a wizened old gardener tells his
assistant to "bind . . . up young dangling apricocks [apricots] / Which like unruly children make their sire / Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight." After that, the assistant should "Go . . ., and like an executioner, / Cut off the heads of too-fast-growing sprays / That look too lofty in our commonwealth," and when he's done with that, he should weed. The lazy assistant, trying to think of some excuse not to do all this, says, "Why should we . . . keep law and form and due proportion / When our sea-walled garden, the whole land, / Is full of weeds?" These workmen seem to have some in-depth knowledge of England's political situation -- "caterpillars of the commonwealth" are also mentioned -- and it would be easy to get lost in their metaphorical references to the realm's corruption under wastrel king Richard, but then we would miss what Shakespeare is really trying to say, which is, pluck off all caterpillars, and if the apricots are so heavy they are causing the branch to bend, you need to apply a kind of splint to the branch so it doesn't break, and also, timely weeding and pruning are important to avoid garden overgrowth. Just chop down those sprays when they get too high, and it's fun when you do it to pretend you're an executioner, chopping off heads.

OK, so far this is not rocket science. It's not even alchemy. It's just garden-variety garden knowledge (a pun Shakespeare might have liked). But we rise to a higher level in The Winter's Tale, where we find Shakespeare dabbling in the more arcane horticultural science of plant hybridization. There, in a complicated dialogue, King Polixenes (whose name means "pollinator") tells a young woman it's a natural art to "marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock, / And make conceive a bark of baser kind / By bud of nobler race." Again, Shakespeare might seem to be alluding in some veiled way, through Polixenes, to the impending marriage of Polixenes' son Prince Florizel (a flowery name) to the wild young woman herself. But let's hack through the obvious metaphorical suggestions to the heart of the dialogue, and find out what's in it for gardeners. Polixenes is explaining to Perdita that wild and cultured plants can be cross-bred. Perdita already knows that, but doesn't care for the practice because it produces "bastard" striped carnations and streaked gillyvors. The passage invites us to think about which flowers we like better: plain or striped? Then, we can choose.

As a side note, this pair's conversation is mind-blowing because it also asks us to rethink the terms "natural" and "technological" -- a word for which Shakespeare would have used the term "artistic." Perdita doesn't like hybridized flowers because they result from human intervention in a natural process. Polixenes argues back that all things, including humans and their productions, are part of the natural universe, so the distinction between natural and unnatural is false. "Nature is made better by no mean / But Nature makes that mean; so over that art / Which you say adds to Nature, is an art / That Nature makes." This makes not only hybridized flowers but pesticides natural. It even makes toxic waste natural. What else could it be? What isn't natural? What do we mean by "natural"? "Natural" doesn't necessarily mean "healthful." It's just what is.

But back to gardening. In this realm, let's consult Hamlet. When we do, we find that, as is often the case in Shakespearean tragedy, we're returned to the issue of weeds. Hamlet thinks the whole world is "an unweeded garden / That grows to seed." The weeds are still bothering him in act three. "Do not spread the compost on the weeds / To make them ranker," he instructs his mother. Throughout the play we see Hamlet's 1.) awareness that there is a weed problem, and 2.) assumption that someone else is going to handle it, either by withholding compost -- which, done prior to weeding, would actually increase the number of weeds in the garden -- or by getting out there and engaging in some actual weeding. A third way never occurs to Hamlet. That would be the un-gardening or wildflower approach.

Hamlet's disgust with unweeded gardens indicates that he, like most European aristocrats of Shakespeare's time, was not a fan of natural habitat, or even familiar with the flourishing-wildlife lawn and garden option which many modern gardeners find not only attractive but easy to manage. Shakespeare himself (who should not be confused with Hamlet) did take an interest in wildflowers, or at least he knew a lot about them, and had other characters speak of them in positive terms. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon fondly recalls "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." This beautiful bank of flowers clearly grows wild with not even a fairy-hand to tend it. Then again, it's in a wood outside of Athens, not in coldish Denmark. The tip for gardeners who dislike weeding seems to be: live in a Mediterranean clime.

Since so many of us (alas) don't, I'll close with some advice from Laertes, who, like Hamlet, lives in the land of frost. The gardening tips he gives his sister Ophelia, however, are mostly concerned with canker. "The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd, / And in the morn and liquid dew of youth, / Contagious blastments are most imminent," he warns. Let's ignore the hypocrisy of Laertes' hint that young Ophelia should guard herself against sexual contamination even though he himself is about to head to Paris for a riotous good time in the brothels there (if his father's suspicions are correct). Let's also overlook Laertes' arrogance in instructing Ophelia, who, if later scenes are a guide, is an advanced herbologist (see act 4, where she hands out imaginary rue, rosemary, and fennel to all and sundry, while commenting on their properties). Let's just focus on what's most important here: the gardening lore. Laertes is telling Ophelia to watch out for bud-rot, which often strikes flowers before they bloom. His advice is puzzling, though, because he doesn't tell Ophelia how to protect the blooms. "Be wary then, best safety lies in fear." Be afraid? That's not helpful. Could it be that Laertes really doesn't know anything about gardening?

If so, he's like me.

And that is the sum total of Shakespeare's references to plant life. I'm kidding! There are approximately eleven thousand, six hundred and forty-eight more. I made that figure up too, but I'd bet it's low.

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