A rose by any other name

Write a play nowadays and you might use The X Factor, texting and football as metaphors most people would understand.

Steven Russell

Write a play nowadays and you might use The X Factor, texting and football as metaphors most people would understand. William Shakespeare often found inspiration in the garden, as Steven Russell discovers

THE talk was of poison and poo the last time we spoke to Caroline Holmes - the former because she'd devised a poison garden at Alnwick in Northumberland and the latter because she had a hardback out on matters whiffy. The Not So Little Book of Dung examined the horticultural and agricultural uses of the waste organic compound and went on to look at myriad weird and wonderful facts about its social implications. The three years since have been more fragrant for the garden historian, lecturer and author who lives near Bury St Edmunds. She's published Why Do Violets Shrink? Answers to 280 Thorny Questions on the World of Plants. It highlighted the quirky lives of flora: from mating and dating to whether or not we could grow plants on other planets.

Then there was writing the text for a tome called Follies of Europe: Architectural Extravaganzas, with photographs by Nicholas Barlow. Last year Caroline worked on a BBC Radio 4 series about how Australia was coping with its worst-ever drought. For A Sunparched Country she spent nearly a month down-under, travelling in the Outback and meeting farmers.

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She's been busy on the devise-and-design side, too: a knot garden, for instance, in the grounds of a dilapidated manor house near the Dartford Crossing that the Royal Opera House is transforming into workshops, offices, set and costume archives, a lecture theatre and an outdoor performance area.

Caroline's envisaging a simple vegetable garden, and an orchard with pears, apples, quinces, mulberries, cherries and so on. There are some large borders with operatic themes: camellia, for instance, is inspired by La Traviata, which was based on the novel La dame aux Cam�lias by Alexandre Dumas. There will be tobacco plants to evoke Carmen - the opening scene being set outside a Seville cigarette factory - and birch trees to symbolise Russian opera.

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Then there's the most recent landscape project: designing a garden at the Church of Notre-Dame of Calais. Reputedly the only English-styled church in France (though it doesn't look it!) the landmark is being restored inside and out.

The next date ringed on the calendar is a tad closer to home: a talk at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds on June 4 entitled How Does Your Garden Grow, Mr Shakespeare? It's billed as “a morning of intrigue, love and death, not forgetting symbolism, plant language and sound gardening advice according to the Bard”.

For there are, she points out, innumerable instances of the playwright using horticultural references while weaving his magic.

“He knew his plants. So he would compare human characteristics with the way a plant grows, or the way you need to treat it or prune it or tend it. If you pick out those metaphors, that's interesting.”

Part of the talk will look at The Winter's Tale and there will be two actors joining Caroline to bring to life the text and show how seasons, plants and people are interwoven in the story. (Coincidentally, the theatre will be in the middle of a run of Comedy of Errors - though there aren't many horticultural references in that tale of crossed-purposes, slapstick and social bedlam.)

Shakespeare's most well-known use of plants for symbolism is probably Ophelia's speech in Hamlet:

“There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.

Pray you, love, remember.

And there is pansies, that's for thoughts.

There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you,

and here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace o' Sundays.

O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There's a daisy. I

would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father

died. They say he made a good end.”

Fennel, explains Caroline, was a symbol of deceit, and columbines (which seed themselves) represent the opposite of chastity.

A 1935 book by British gardener Eleanour Sinclair Rohde - that goes by the delightful name of Shakespeare's Wild Flowers: Fairy Lore, Gardens, Herbs, Gatherers Of Simples And Bee Lore - has proved helpful in pinpointing plant-related quotations. Caroline has many others of her own; so much material, she laughs, that pruning will most definitely be required before the day - no pun intended.

She'll also talk about Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, where there's a re-creation of the garden originally designed to astound visitors, particularly Elizabeth I.

Robert Dudley, the queen's favourite and a man harbouring hopes of marrying her, took over the castle in 1563 and spent vastly to turn it into a fine house to host Elizabeth and her royal court on their travels around the kingdom.

The monarch visited Kenilworth four times - the last during the summer of 1575. She stayed nearly three weeks and Dudley rolled out the red carpet like never before. He laid on music, plays, dancing and hunting, and also created a stunning garden.

“What is interesting,” says Caroline, “is that in 1575 young Will Shakespeare was 11 years old or thereabouts. His father was a glove-maker and an alderman in Stratford, 12 miles south. It's long believed by lots of Shakespearean scholars - though they can't prove it - that young Will would have walked there with his father or ridden there, because of the queen coming.

“Dudley not only created this wonderful garden that's been re-created, but at that stage Kenilworth was surrounded by a 100-acre mere. They had fireworks, 'mermaids' coming up from the depths saying 'You are most wonderful . . .' and they had boys riding on dolphins.

“I want to explain all this and then we will listen to some of A Midsummer Night's Dream. If that wasn't inspired by what he saw when he was 11 years old . . . it's too much of a coincidence.”

Another influence Caroline will cite is the Book of Common Prayer, as revised by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1552. The words Shakespeare would have heard every Sunday were full of poetry, she says, and choice phrases were embedded in his later works - an Elizabethan cut-and-paste job, in effect!

Then there was everyday life itself. Caroline's read Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate. The new book by the professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at the University of Warwick suggests that the bard, who had accumulated property in Stratford-upon-Avon, decamped back to Warwickshire because of the threat of plague in crowded London in the late 1590s and early 1600s.

Back in a more rural setting, he'd have noticed much more the natural world around him, so it's little surprise that plays such as Measure for Measure contain strong references to flora.

“Country people knew their plants, and he grew up knowing the country names for everything that was in the hedgerow,” says Caroline.

The playwright used them in shortcut ways of communicating ideas to people by using objects they understood.

Some thoughts and observations pertain to . . . well . . . some of the more base aspects of human existence. Shakespeare talks a lot about garden arbours. A character in All's Well that Ends Well talks about her husband knowing her in the garden arbour, for instance.

“There was a Tudor writer in about 1560-something who was saying that standards were dropping and that people instead of spending their money on charity were building things like garden buildings and arbours, where they'd 'play the filthy person'! I've got to have that!” chuckles Caroline.

The June visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to St Edmundsbury Cathedral also presents a golden opportunity that can't be passed up.

“When I heard that, I said 'I know there's a reference that has something to do with plants and churchmen.' So I whistled through. In Henry V the Bishop of Ely has a discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, I think, about the young prince not behaving in a seemly fashion. But the Bishop of Ely effectively says 'Ah, but look how well strawberries flourish under a canopy of nettles.'

“I've got to try to work that in . . . When our current Archbishop of Canterbury looks at the youth of today, is he aware of these luscious strawberries underneath?!”

Theatre Royal box office (for bookings and inquiries) 01284 769505. After the talk (and at an extra cost of �13.50) folk can join Caroline Holmes for lunch in the Greene Room Restaurant.

A Shakespearean cutting . . .

From The Winter's Tale


That come before the swallow dares, and take

The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,

But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes

Or Cytherea's breath; pale primroses,

That die unmarried, ere they can behold

Bright Ph�bus in his strength, a malady

Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and

The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds.

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