Monday, August 20, 2018

The Shakespeare Garden

Someone at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex (now the Bader International Study Centre, affiliated to Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario) had the laudable idea of planting a Shakespeare Garden with plants mentioned in Will's writings, and quotations alongside. Reading these, the peaceful garden becomes a ripple of voices.

 Here are a few photos of the attached quotations.

Queen Gertrude, interrupting the conference between Claudius and Laertes with news of Ophelia's death:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them...

"Crow-flowers" might mean ragged robin (as claimed on the notice), or might mean crowfoot, the white aquatic buttercup: -- as in Millais' painting, where crowfoot gets a starring role alongside Elizabeth Siddal.

The meaning ragged robin is attested by Gerard in his Herball (1597), a book we know Shakespeare read (it's used in the late additions to LLL). The OED claims that crow flower was a longstanding folk-name for crowfoot but can find no example earlier than John Clare, unless this is it.

The symbolism of Ophelia's flowers is a popular topic. Crow flower is said to be symbolic of ingratitude, childishness, and neatness; contradictory as they are, all these interpretations refer, I think, to crowfoot, or buttercups in general. (But symbolic interpretations of Ophelia's flowers are as plodding as Shakespeare is subtle. He's swift, intuitive and, always, dramatic. His lines have no intention of getting bogged down in a single meaning.)

Millais is thought to have painted his crowfoot from life, at a spot on the River Hogsmill in Ewell, Surrey.  He idealized it, no doubt.  For example, he mingled plants of spring, midsummer and late summer, all in full bloom. Gertrude's "long purples" (generally reckoned to be Early Purple Orchid, though the evidence is none too strong) are represented in Millais by the credible riverside plant Purple Loosestrife. He tidied up the scene,  but he did paint from life.

So a modern image of Millais' stream, as shown in the link below, is rather a shock... the dark water almost lost as it winds between rank stands of Himalayan Balsam.

When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou will inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love's arms are peace, 'gainst rule, 'gainst sense, 'gainst shame,
And sweetens, in the suffering pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks, and fears.

The seductive lover addressing the maid. (And naturally, blaming her attractions for his own bad behaviour.)

"Aloes" here just means bitterness, a figurative expression derived from the medicine "bitter aloes", which is indeed the product of plants of the Aloe family.

This is Perdita, in conversation with Polixenes.

Most of the flowers in the garden were over, but the streaked gillyvors were still going strong, in accordance with Perdita's preceding words:

                         Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o' th' season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards...

Perdita dislikes the horticultural messing with natural wild plants, evinced by such showy blooms as this one. Polixenes defends the art of horticulture as itself a work of nature.

(In fact Act III Scene 12.)

Euphronius (once Antony's schoolmaster), acting as his makeshift and abject ambassador to Caesar:

Euph. Such as I am, I come from Antony :
I was of late as petty to his ends
As is the morn-dew on the myrtle-leaf
To his grand sea.

"Of late..." Well, the days of Antonine hyperbole are all up now, but Euphronius leaves us with one of the most astonishing.

This comes from the end of a long passage of valedictory advice by Henry IV to one of his younger sons, Thomas of Clarence, urging him to be a peacemaker to his brothers when troublemakers cause dissension:

                   Learn this, Thomas,
And thou shalt prove a shelter to the friends,
A hoop of gold to bind the brothers in,
That the united vessel of their blood,
Mingled with venom of suggestion --
As force perforce the age will pour it in --
Shall never leak, though it do work as strong
As aconitum or rash gunpowder.

Clar. I shall observe him with all care and love.

Nurse. They call for dates and quinces in the pastry.

A remark by the Nurse to Lady Capulet, amid the early morning bustle of preparations for Juliet's wedding to County Paris.

Lady Capulet has not been in Juliet's confidence for a long time. The Nurse used to be, but unbeknownst to herself Juliet has now shut her out, disgusted by her worldly advice to forget Romeo and enjoy Paris.

Neither speaker, therefore, has an inkling of what we've just witnessed and is about to burst on them, Juliet's staged "death".

Thy banks with pioned and twilled brims,
Which spongy April at thy hest betrims
To make cold nymphs chaste crowns...

(The Tempest, IV.1)

Iris invoking Ceres, within the spirit-masque performed at Prospero's command for Miranda and Ferdinand.

The meaning of the line is highly uncertain. Some think that "pioned and twilled" refer to plants. Peony, Marsh Marigold, and Orchid have been suggested for the former word, Willow for the latter. Others (thinking of "pioners" = sappers, trench-diggers) propose that the line is about river maintenance: "pioned" meaning "trenched" (to prevent silting), and "twilled" referring to woven basketry used to prevent bank erosion.

Whichever, the outre language is evidently intentional. Principally, this is to distinguish the inner performance of Ariel's spirits from ordinary speech that's already much elevated. But intuitively, Shakespeare had been discovering for a long time a dramatic language that could more powerfully and swiftly evoke natural scenes than by listing  its components. In reality, every natural scene is too rich in detail for us to take in. So there's an essential cloudiness in our comprehension of nature; part of our experience is awareness of our own ignorance, of limited selection and the personal assignment of significance. You could see the late artistry of this river evocation as a development of Gertrude's river scene in Hamlet (above). There too the list of plants isn't fully definable, but impressionist; and their significance is for each listener to make out.

My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.

This is Thisby, played by Francis Flute the bellows-mender, addressing Wall, played by Tom Snout the tinker.

Thisby's words sound inadvertently rude, as was no doubt the intention

Lucio. I was once before him for getting a wench with child.

Duke (disguised as a friar). Did you such a thing?

Lucio. Yes, marry, did I but I was fain to forswear it; they would else have married me to the rotten medlar.

Implying the wench in question was a pox-ridden whore.  The fruit of the medlar has to be rotten (bletted) before it's palatable.

Lucio is, as usual, outrageously offensive; our own outrage is somewhat tempered by the belief that he always talks for effect and that most of his tales are made up.

Dry up thy marrows, vines, and plough-torn leas;
Whereof ungrateful man, with liquorish draughts
And morsels unctuous, greases his pure mind,
That from it all consideration slips!

A misanthropic Timon, solus, addressing the earth, in which he's digging for roots.



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