Gardens, Emotions and Shakespeare

By Andrew Lynch and Bob White (The University of Western Australia)

The Opening of the Shakespeare Garden at UWA.

Shakespeare and gardens go together. There are Shakespeare gardens from Stratford-upon-Avon to Central Park in New York, the Huntington Library in California, Regensburg, Johannesburg and now Perth. On 1 June 2018, The University of Western Australia officially opened a Shakespeare-inspired garden in the Arts Building, in the space behind the New Fortune Theatre. The original Fortune Playhouse (1600) had an adjoining garden, so here is another touch of authenticity to UWA’s unique Elizabethan reconstruction.[i] As the plants grow and are augmented with new ones, the garden is intended as a lasting, material ‘footprint’ left as a legacy for future generations by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

CHE Director Andrew Lynch delivering an opening speech.

The Shakespeare-inspired garden at UWA has been designed to feature a variety of plants that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s poems and plays. With benches and powerpoints, it is already gaining popularity with students, and very soon new noticeboards will feature informational exhibitions on the garden and the New Fortune, the fruits of research conducted by Bob White and Ciara Rawnsley.

Popular and scholarly study of Shakespeare’s 80-odd references to flora dates back to the early twentieth century and there are now many books on the subject.[ii] In Shakespeare’s Plants and Gardens: A Dictionary, Vivian Thomas and Nicki Faircloth  suggest that Shakespeare ‘lived when knowledge of plants and their uses was a given’, at a time of unique interest in plants and gardens:

His lifetime saw the beginning of scientific interest in plants, the first large-scale plant introductions from outside the country since Roman times, and the beginning of gardening as a leisure activity.[iii]

Plants were considered medicinal and they were given emblematic meanings, emotional resonances and political symbolism, from which Shakespeare draws. In our garden we have, for example, ‘rosemary, that’s for remembrance’ (Ophelia in Hamlet), the ‘purple dye’ of pansies (anemones) which were ‘love-in-idleness’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and into which Adonis was metamorphosed in Venus and Adonis. We see the Wars of the Roses, red for the Lancastrians and white for the House of York. As they grow we will have Beatrice’s bower of honeysuckle which ‘ripened by the sun forbids the sun to enter’ (Much Ado About Nothing). The garden is topped with mature palms, which for Shakespeare were symbols of flourishing prosperity. Bay (laurel) represented poetic fame while ‘sad cypress’ was associated with death. We even have two fruiting pomegranate trees beside ‘Juliet’s balcony’: ‘It was the nightingale and not the lark, That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;/ Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree’ (Romeo and Juliet). And apart from the plants, Shakespeare was also no stranger to our world-famous peacocks, seeing them as representing overweening pride:

Let frantic Talbot triumph for a while
And like a peacock sweep along his tail;
We’ll pull his plumes and take away his train.
(Henry VI, Part I)

The newest additions – shrubs, herbs and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays – are, like the plays themselves, able to thrive in their new surroundings against a backdrop of yellow brick. For us, Ophelia’s famous flower speech does not seem foreign. She lists lavender, thyme, fennel and rosemary: as children, we grew up with them in our backyards; we picked, smelled and sometimes ate them, and watched the bees pollinate them (‘Where the bee sucks there suck I’, as Ariel sings in The Tempest), well before we encountered them in Shakespeare and learned to give them new associations. Ophelia’s daffodils, daisies and pansies were staple flowers in our parents’ gardens. And we find Shakespeare’s close association of flowers with love quite natural and customary: ‘Away before me to sweet beds of flowers, / Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers’, says Orsino in Twelfth Night. I’m sure there will be some such thoughts, in future, under the still fledgling canopies of the new garden.

The cultural roots of gardens run deep. Shakespeare knew the classical tradition, where the garden, apart from providing food, was seen as a place for rest, leisure, peace and friendly conversation, as this one already is. Cultivating a garden and cultivating one’s mind and good qualities went hand in hand. That idea also applied to political culture. In Richard II, we hear of the gardener’s duty to ‘Keep law and form and due proportion, / Showing, as in a model, our firm estate’, and Hamlet calls Denmark ‘an unweeded garden that grows to seed’. Let’s hope that won’t be allowed to happen here.

Shakespeare also inherited the story of Eden, the garden where human life began and from which we were banished. An earthly garden might recreate for us an ‘other Eden, demi-paradise’, John of Gaunt says in Richard II. Of course, there is no Eden without a serpent in it and we have a very impressive sextuple one in the UWA garden in the form of Margaret Priest’s Serpent Fountain. In this case, however, it only adds to our pleasure.

Margaret Priest’s Serpent Fountain.

The memorialisation of Shakespeare in Australia goes back to colonial times. In 1841, Thomas Carlyle wrote:

From Paramatta, from New York, wheresoever … English men and women are, they will say to one another: ‘Yes, this Shakespeare is ours; we produced him, we speak and think by him; we are of one blood and kind with him’.[iv]

Today, in a different time and mindset, we speak and think of Shakespeare very differently from Carlyle. Our garden stands in the precinct of a historical yet timeless theatre where John Bell staged The Taming of the Shrew set in an Italian-Australian community in southern NSW; where Zimbabwean performers put on an unforgettable two-man Two Gentlemen of Verona and Hamlet drawing on the Shona language; and where Yirra Yaakin Theatre actors have recited Shakespearean sonnets translated into Noongar. Our relation to Shakespeare is not one of ancestral and racial replication, nor even of presumed ‘universality’, but of constant change, creative cross-cultural dialogue which embraces hybridity, allowing new, local possibilities of emotional vibrancy to emerge, as the plants grow and the plays continue to be staged.

Andrew Lynch is a Professor in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, and Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. He has written extensively on medieval literature of war and peace and its modern afterlives. With Stephanie Downes and Katrina O’Loughlin, he is editor of Emotions and War: Medieval to Romantic Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and the forthcoming Writing War in Britain and France, 1400–1854 (Routledge). He is co-editor of Emotions: History, Culture, Society, and a General Editor of the forthcoming six-volume Bloomsbury Cultural History of Emotions.

Bob White is Winthrop Professor in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia, and a Chief Investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. His research focuses on early modern literature, especially Shakespeare and Romantic literature. His recent publications include The New Fortune Theatre: That Vast Open Stage, edited with Ciara Rawnsley (Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2018), Shakespeare’s Cinema of Love (Manchester University Press, 2016) and Avant-Garde Hamlet (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015).

[i] For history and analysis, see The New Fortune Theatre: That Vast Open Stage, edited by Ciara Rawnsley and Robert S. White (Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2018).

[ii] For a survey, see Roy Strong, The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden (London: Thames and Hudson and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2016).

[iii] Vivian Thomas and Nicki Faircloth, Shakespeare’s Plants and Gardens: A Dictionary (London: Bloomsbury/The Arden Shakespeare, 2016), abstract.

[iv] Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Hero as Poet’ [1841], in On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Volume 5 of The Works of Thomas Carlyle, edited by Henry Duff Traill (New York: AMS Press,1969).

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