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Shakespeare’s Plants and Gardens

A Dictionary


Vivian Thomas & Nicki Faircloth


Arden Shakespeare Dictionaries

London: Bloomsbury, 2014

Hardcover. xii + 414 p. ISBN 978-1441143709. £99.99


Reviewed by Sophie Chiari

Aix-Marseille Université


As part of the Arden Shakespeare Dictionaries series, Vivian Thomas’s and Nicki Faircloth’s volume is most welcome, and it should be said right from the beginning that it is much more than a simple list of plants and flowers mentioned in the Shakespearean canon. Complemented by an enticing “List of Headwords” at the beginning as well as by a useful “Index of Shakespeare Works” at the end, here is a book suited for a close reading of Shakespeare’s plays. Its A to Z entries supply detailed explanations on agricultural implements and key botanical terminology at work in the plays and poems, and many of them run to half a page—or even longer in the case of umbrella terms like “herb”, “nature” or “tree”, or of frequently occurring words loaded with religious or sexual connotations such as “graft”, “vine” or “seed”. On top of that, Latin plant names are systematically quoted along the plants’ common names (which implies that the “marjoram” entry, for example, is immediately followed by the Origanum vulgare phrase), and there are extensive cross-references (systematically printed in bold) to other related headings. Such a concise dictionary will thus allow Shakespeare lovers, students and scholars to make sense of specific recurring imageries, either pertaining to the culinary and the medicinal fields or belonging to the wider domains of agriculture and horticulture, in order to understand the broader implications of the use of vegetables onstage—either metaphorically or literally speaking, as in Twelfth Night, where a box-tree serves as a stage prop hiding Malvolio’s observers in the memorable letter scene.

Whether you want a concordance, need the definition of a plant or its implied meaning(s), or require a broader introduction to an area that you are not particularly familiar with, Shakespeare’s Plants and Gardens is an excellent research tool. Granted, much has already been said on the craze of Tudor gardens and on Shakespeare’s green world. Roy Strong, in particular, has done a great deal to arouse our interest in the history of English gardening and in the specificities of early modern knot gardens and vegetal embroideries, deeply connected to politics and power. But so far, the purely literary role of plants, rhizomes and botanical treatises has been relatively neglected by Shakespeare’s scholars, despite the repeated references to nature and cultivation to be found in the Bard’s comedies, tragedies and histories.

Here, by focusing on “filberts” (more commonly called “hazel trees”), “gourds” (including the coloquintida or the cucumber), “medlars” (related to hawthorns), or “squashes”—a squash being “the unripe pod of the pea” [322] and, as such, a term often liked to childhood in Shakespeare’s plays— Thomas and Faircloth not merely help us bridge the gap between science and drama, or nature and literature, thanks to botanical analysis. More importantly, they allow us to recontextualise some of Shakespeare’s tricky passages (one comes to understand why, in Much Ado About Nothing, Margaret wants Beatrice to get some “distill’d carduus benedictus”, i.e a plant then used to quicken the senses and as an antidote to the plague) and shed a new light on what we often tend to regard, out of ignorance, as somewhat obscure lines (e.g. Davy’s inquiry in 2 Henry IV, “and again, sir, shall we sow the hade land with red wheat?” (5.1.14-15)—the “hade land” being here “a piece of previously left fallow” [172]).

In the wake of F. David Hoeniger’s and J.F.M Hoeniger’s seminal book on The Development of Natural History in Tudor England (1969), one of the great merits of Thomas’s and Faircloth’s dictionary is also to remind us of the highly influential physicians-gardeners who attempted to revolutionise the use of medicinal plants and, more generally, of the now forgotten great men who improved the language of plants and fashioned new, colourful words pregnant with a variety of different meanings. As the 18-page Introduction to Shakespeare’s Plants and Garden makes clear, the earliest studies of herbs and flowers appeared during the first half of the 16th century. Then, in the 1550s, travel writings gradually disseminated new knowledge concerning exotic and rare plants. The French explorer and naturalist Pierre Belon (1517-1564) helped circulate throughout Europe minute descriptions of plants from Egypt and the Middle East. From 1546 to 1549, Belon journeyed through Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia and Palestine, which eventually led him to publish his observations of flora and fauna in 1555. As to the Spanish physician and botanist Nicolas Monardes (1493-1588), he was one of the first to report on the botanical treasure found in the Americas, even though he himself probably never travelled to the Indies. Fascinated by the medicinal value of herbs and flowers, he achieved wide renown with his Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales que sirven en Medicina, which appeared in instalments between 1565 and 1574. Significantly, Monarde’s cornucopia of remedies was quickly translated into English as Joyfull newes out of the new-found worlde (1577) by John Frampton.

It should thus come as no surprise that, by the end of the 16th century, writers and publishers alike sought to capitalise on this new interest towards the botanical business. While English gardening manuals proliferated, a more specialised kind of botanical and horticultural literature flourished. As a result, the English tongue was enriched and broadened in scope with new words derived from anthologies, catalogues and herbals. Shakespeare must have had an intimate knowledge of the practical and symbolic roles of plants. Jonathan Bate thinks that his personal library would have contained between twenty and forty books.(1) This means that the playwright read many more books than those he really owned. Presumably, he had a large access to botanical manuals even though they were not included in his private collection

While the final part of William’s Turner A New Herbal (1564), the first English book of its kind to include original material, was issued in the year of the playwright’s birth, John Gerard’s Herball, Generall Historie of Plants (1597), in particular, proved a landmark in terms of horticultural literature. This translation of Rembert Dodoen’s popular Dutch herbal of 1554 actually incorporated valuable observations on plants from Gerard’s own garden as well as on New World plants. It goes without saying that Dodoen’s translator rapidly acquired an important notoriety in Shakespeare’s England, and was superintendant of Burghley’s gardens before becoming James I’s surgeon and herbalist.

Examples of fashionable early modern books trying to identify or classify plants abound and this Bloomsbury anthology quotes them extensively. Henry Lyte’s herbals, Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1573) or Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s Natural History (1601) are among the most frequently mentioned because they really testify to the attention paid by Shakespeare’s contemporaries to the botanical universe. Also, because plants became more easily available at the time, new scientific experimentations based on herbs gradually emerged and were part and parcel of “an urgent desire to probe the secrets of nature” [11].

Now “nature”, in Shakespeare’s works, is not just endowed with scientific meanings. On the contrary, it is especially important because of its high symbolic significance. Drawing as much on Christian iconography as on scientific treatises being themselves enactments of ancient texts, the playwright did not simply aim at enriching the background of his theatrical pieces, but he also engaged with the political and economic considerations of his time thanks to the intriguing polysemy of plants. Indeed, naturalists were then linguists of sorts.  Because trees, berries (which could then designate any fruit) and vegetables—whether native or exotic— inspired most poets and playwrights of the period, all similarly eager to refashion the English language, Thomas and Faircloth successfully show how contemporary writers relied on botanical sources and they compare their ways to Shakespeare’s own specific habits. And the fact is that, while Spenser or Dekker emphasised the emblematic importance of plants, the frequent occurrences of the vegetal world in the Bard’s plays and poems do not seem just intended for descriptive or didactic ends, but they clearly allow him to dramatise his plots in a particularly efficient way, mixing the visual with the metaphorical. While Perdita’s reluctance to carnations keeps striking modern audiences today, who would remember the Friar in Romeo and Juliet without his dubious pharmacopoeia? Who would still think about Ophelia without her flowers, Oberon without his bank of thyme, oxlips and violets (2.2.249-50), or Jaques without his green refuge in the forest of Arden?

Plants, Thomas and Faircloth explain, thus contributed to deploy a theatrical universe full of magical resonances and unexpected associations. If many of their entries are quite logical ones, some of them turn out to be rather surprising. It is easy to understand why the University of Padua, whose botanical garden, alluded to in the very first lines of The Taming of the Shrew, was established as soon as 1545, deserves its own entry. But we may wonder why words like “hermit”, “fountain”, or even “hunt” should appear in a dictionary presumably restricted to trees, fruits and flowers. Even more surprising is the entry on “statue[s]”. Of course, one can only agree with the fact that they “were important features of garden landscape” [323] but one barely sees the need to incorporate statuary in a book primarily thought of as an in-depth study of the early modern green world, not the mineral one.

Yet, these slight oddities are part of a vast and fascinating cabinet of curiosities and, as such, they should not spoil our pleasure. Thomas’s and Faircloth’s engaging guide includes vivid examples, and it is clear, well-written and instructive. So, to conclude on a positive note, this is no less than a ‘world of words’ both highly enjoyable and easily accessible.


(1) Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age : A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, New York: Random House, 2009 : 135.


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