The plants of tragedy, comedy, and history: a gallery of botanic references from the plays of William Shakespeare.
I was recently at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, where I was not surprised to hear many references to plants in Shakespeare's plays, but I was surprised to notice that the playwright employed the symbolism of trees, flowers, and herbs in his tragedies and histories.
Plants were the stuff of not only romance and passion, they were also emblems of despair, fear, and decay. A look at Shakespeare's botanic symbolism reveals how our associations with plants have changed over the past several centuries, and, of course, how beautifully he wound together the human experience with the botanic life cycle.
Quotations and reference are from the book The Plant-lore and Garden-craft of Shakespeare, by Henry Nicholson Ellacombe (W. Satchell and Co., 1884).
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.
Helena: So we grew together,
Like to a double Cherry, seeming parted,
But yet a union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem.
Midsummer Night's Dream, act iii, sc. 2 (208).
In sixteenth-century England, cherry trees were commonly cultivated, and known for their beautiful flowers and sweet harvest: single fruits on a twin stem.
Mistress Quickly: Feel, masters, how I shake Yea, in very truth do I an 'twere an Aspen leaf.
2nd Henry IV, act ii, sc. 4 (114).
With leaves that tremble in the breeze, the aspen tree was a symbol of quivering emotion and resolve.
Ophelia: There's Rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember.
Hamlet, act iv, sc. 5 (175).
Bishop of Ely: The Strawberry grows underneath the Nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality;
And so the prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness.
Henry V, act i, sc. 1 (60).
In Shakespeare's time, it was believed that plants assumed the qualities of their neighbors—for example, sweet-smelling flowers would enhance the flavor of nearby fruit trees. Strawberries were seen as an exception to the rule. The adored, delicate, early summer fruit was understood to actually thrive alongside unsavory plants, such as the stinging nettle.
Lucio: Nay, friar, I am a kind of Bur;
I shall stick.
Measure for Measure, act iv, sc. 3 (149).
Celia. They are but Burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in holiday foolery; if we walk not in the trodden paths our very petticoats will catch them.
Rosalind. I could shake them off my coat; these Burs are in my heart.
As You Like It, act i, sc. 3 (13).
The references most likely refer to burdock (Arctium lappa), whose tendency to cling to passers-by conferred the symbolic qualities of persistence, and also love.
Queen: There is a Willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
There on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke.
Hamlet, act iv, sc. 7 (167).
Desdemona (singing): The poor soul sat sighing by a Sycamore tree.
Sing all a green Willow; Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing Willow, Willow, Willow. The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing Willow, Willow, Willow. Her salt tears fell from her and soften'd the stones,
Sing Willow, Willow, Willow. Sing all a green Willow must be my garland.
Othello, act iv, sc. 3 (41).
Once the tree of romantic elegance, by the sixteenth century, the willow was an emblem of deep sorrows and due punishment. Its leaves were woven as garlands for wronged lovers and it was often planted in cemeteries. Ophelia (left) drowned under a willow tree.
Gardener: Go, bind thou up yon dangling Apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.
Richard II, act iii, sc. 4 (29).
Salisbury: To gild refined gold, to paint the Lily,
To throw a perfume on the Violet,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
King John, act iv, sc. 2 (11).
Princess. Now by my maiden honour, yet as pure As the unsullied Lily.
Love's Labour's Lost, act v, sc. 2 (351).
A flower associated with the Virgin Mary (as represented in paintings of the Annunciation), the lily was an emblem of perfect beauty and female purity.
Gadshill: We have the receipt of Fern-seed—we walk invisible.
Henry IV, act ii, sc. I (95).
While ferns would later become fashionable in England, they were considered an uncanny oddity in Shakespeare's time. A plant that reproduces by spores, rather than flower and seed, the fern's life cycle was curiously invisible.