An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977
A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.
Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.
Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.
And the blooms themselves? There are some like the familiar rose (“What’s in a name?”), the ‘nodding’ violet, ‘daisies pied’ and “daffodils, that come before the swallow dares”. There are names which are less customary nowadays, though Fox proffers suggestions: Ophelia’s crowflower may be ragged robin, ‘cuckoo-buds of yellow hue’ are buttercups, while the ‘long purple’ could be wild arum, also known as cuckoo-pint and as lords-and-ladies.
The forests and meadows of plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream naturally feature flower imagery, and even the court of Elsinore allows their symbolism through Ophelia’s unhappy madness and early demise, but the author also notes that “no fewer than twenty-nine scenes of his plays are set in gardens and orchards.”
This little publication can’t feature every single mention of flowers in Shakespeare’s oeuvre but there is a good representative sample: “the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle” for example, carnations or gillyvors which Perdita promoted to “make your garden rich”, and “lilies of all kinds, | The flower-de-luce being one.”
I’m not a gardener but I do appreciate a well tended garden, a grass verge peppered with buttercups and daisies, or even a bit of waste ground where poppies or comfrey or insect-friendly nettles with their delicate white flowers have established themselves. It’s just pleasing to know that even with exotic introduced species proliferating everywhere our man from Stratford would still recognise quite a few plants from his time four centuries ago.
Photos are of flowers from our garden, bar one from the neighbourhood