Shakespeare uses the power of plants to tell his tales
From the roses of “Romeo and Juliet” to the lilies of “The Winter’s Tale,” William Shakespeare mentioned plants 200 times in his plays and sonnets. He knew the power of plants to elicit emotion and help tell a story, especially in the 16th century.
“Plants meant so much to people who went to see his plays,” said Rhonda Nowak, an Oregon State University Extension Service master gardener since 2011. “People then were more connected to plants then we are; they used them for medicinal purposes and knew the tales behind them.”
In modern times, even people who don’t go to plays recognize the quote from “Romeo and Juliet”: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But roses, Shakespeare’s go-to plant, come up an additional 95 times. Next in line are oak trees at 36 times, lilies 28, grapes 27 and apples 24. The list goes on.
As a Medford resident, avid gardener and fan of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in nearby Ashland, Nowak naturally started thinking about Shakespeare’s use of plants. Her background fits perfectly: She has a PhD in literary and language arts education and teaches English composition at Rogue Community College.
Shakespeare’s use of plants is intentional, as metaphor and symbolically, according to Nowak. Roses, for example, stand in for beauty, health, softness, love and elegance. In his works, Shakespeare refers to the white and red Tudor rose to demonstrate the union of the House of York (white rose) and House of Lancaster (red rose) at the end of the War of the Roses in 1485. Though the reference is shaky in terms of historical relevance, he popularized it in “Henry VI,” where he credits the Earl of Warwick with a passage that obviously takes place before the alliance:
“This brawl today,
Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden
Shall send, between Red Rose and the White,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night!
Though no one knows if Shakespeare was a gardener, he had a gardener’s sensibility. He even knew about rose diseases, as revealed in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where he writes about the Queen of Fairies: “Titania is lucky that she has the other fairies kill the cankers for her!” If only modern-day gardeners had fairies. Wouldn’t that be great?
Close in meaning to roses, lilies indicate elegance, purity and innocence, sometimes in a tragic way. In “Titus Andronicus,” Titus says about his daughter Lavinia after she was violently attacked:
“When I did name her brothers, then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.”
“It’s a very violent, gory play and yet in one part he introduces the lily,” Nowak said. “Her father sees her as being pure and innocent, but after her attack he sees her as withered. It’s pretty powerful.”
In a less disturbing way, white lilies came to be associated with Christianity, particularly the Virgin Mary, who was often shown holding a Madonna lily in paintings.
“The Madonna lily was venerated as a sacred lily because its petals suggested a spotless body and its golden anthers a soul gleaming with heavenly light,” Nowak noted.
Nowak has started designing a Shakespeare Garden at Hanley Farm near Jacksonville and this spring will be planting many of the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. She will give tours of the garden, tell the stories behind the plants, talk about plant choices and offer cultivation tips. If interested, contact her at email@example.com or 541-727-8346.
“I think it’s fun,” said Nowak, who grows about 25 of Shakespeare’s plants in her quarter-acre garden. “It adds another layer of interest to gardening. You’d grow certain plants anyway and then enjoy them more because you know they have some meaning in Shakespeare’s plays and to the people who saw them.”