Books about William Shakespeare often begin by saying that we know little about his life – and in one sense that is true. We know he was baptized in 1564, married in 1582 and, 400 years ago this month, was buried on 23 April 1616 just before his 52nd birthday.
One very large body of visible evidence for the life and times of William Shakespeare is often overlooked – the houses and gardens in which he and his family lived.
Shakespeare was born into an age of travel and adventure. He was 16 years old when Sir Francis Drake returned to England from his three-year circumnavigation of the globe. The first maps of Britain and the world were in circulation and in 1594, when Shakespeare was 30 years old, Sir Walter Raleigh sailed off to South America to find the fabled ‘city of gold’ – El Dorado.
In terms of gardening, it was also exciting times, as plants were arriving from the Old and the New Worlds: nasturtiums from Peru, marigolds from Mexico and hibiscus from Asia. Classical ideas from Italian Renaissance gardens were filtering into Britain and inspiration came from France and the Low Countries.
Shakespeare’s work reflects this growing interest in imported plants, herbs, spices and other foods. Anyone who has watched or read a Shakespeare play or sonnet will know that the natural world was part and parcel of his thought and speech. His upbringing in the town garden and orchard of his birthplace, and on his mother’s farm, goes some way to explain how flowers and plants became such an effortless part of his language.
Throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, gardens evolved from necessary food- producing plots to fashionable, flower-filled showpieces. All the elements of the ordered universe that made up a typical Elizabethan garden can be found in Shakespeare’s plays: allées and walks, mazes and knots, galleries and viewing platforms, orchards, parks and arbours. Parks and gardens are used for playing bowls, for hunting, for eating and, most importantly, for deceptions, misunderstandings and dramatic unravellings. Many of the settings of Shakespeare’s plays have an ‘otherworldly’ quality about them, but placing the action in a garden, a wood or a park makes them down to earth and familiar.
As a young man in London, Shakespeare probably visited more gardens than at any other time in his life. Contemporary surveys indicate that there were lots of small town gardens, particularly outside the city walls and south of the Thames – gardens with orchards, fruit, vegetables and flowers.
Gardens for pleasure were also a feature of city life – somewhere for the well-heeled to go bowling, watch entertainments or eat in small banqueting houses. There was a close link between gardens and playhouses – the gardens being somewhere to go after the plays were finished.
Shakespeare gives us a very detailed picture of the geography of a walled garden with its adjoining vineyard in Measure for Measure.
He hath a garden circummured with brick,
Whose western side is with a vineyard backed;
And to that vineyard is a planked gate,
That makes his opening with this bigger key.
This other doth command a little door
Which from the vineyard to the garden leads.
There have I made my promise
Upon the heavy middle of the night
To call upon him.
Measure for Measure, Act 4 scene 1
As a mature man in Stratford, Shakespeare created his own garden. Richard II was written in 1595, a couple of years before Shakespeare bought his own house and garden, but it certainly sounds like the author has already been – or at least seen – a gardener at work.
In one scene the queen overhears her gardeners talking about the state of the nation under her husband’s rule, comparing it to a neglected garden.
O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land
As we this garden!
Richard II, Act 3 scene 4
This one of the many times that we hear working people speak in Shakespeare. In this short scene, Shakespeare gives us the gamut of gardening tasks – supporting the limbs of heavy-fruiting, espaliered apricots so as not to break the stems, deadheading too-tall plants and lopping branches off fruit trees.
Despite gardeners often remaining faceless and nameless in the records of garden-making throughout history, Shakespeare gives them a brief but long-lived moment of glory. And, in a sense, that is a fitting if not poetic tribute to their work.
This is an edited extract from Shakespeare’s Gardens by Jackie Bennett, published by Frances Lincoln.