Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Shakespeare in the Gardens

A little more than a month ago, when NCT and I were searching for my mystery bird, we spent some time exploring Central Park's Shakespeare Garden. Over the past year I've watched the Garden shift and change throughout the seasons; in fact, the magnolia tree that was bursting with white blossoms during the bird search was already flowerless by the time I returned to the Garden a week after our visit. But on that particular afternoon the Garden was in full bloom, and the tulips and bluebells and even fallen magnolia blossoms hid and blanketed the small golden plaques bearing horticultural Shakespearean quotes. The objective, as NCT and I decided it, in finding these plaques is two-fold: first, one must obviously locate them, and second, one must see if he/she can guess the context from which they're taken (this is hard and sometimes not fun).

When I was in San Francisco several days later, I spent a similar afternoon in Golden Gate Park's Shakespeare Garden, which is as different from Central Park's in topography and design as one can imagine. Yet the Gardens are united by their displayed Shakespearean quotes, and their purpose--to showcase the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's works, while providing a respite from day to day craziness--is the same. When I first visited England, at fifteen, I made the obligatory Stratford-upon-Avon trip, but over the years I've found that the places that most evoke Shakespeare for me are Oxford and these two Gardens. It was in Oxford that I first truly tackled Shakespeare's oeuvre, in particular the late and problem plays, and it was in the San Francisco and Central Park Gardens that I regularly spent and spend lazy weekend afternoons.

The Central Park Garden rests on a small rise between Belvedere Castle and the Swedish Cottage, within view of the Delacorte's summer Shakespeare in the Park performances; in contrast, the Golden Gate Park Garden is tucked in a wide, flat grassy space between the Academy of Sciences and the Arboretum.
NYC vs. SF: the Shakespeare Showdown
Both gardens have the compulsory sundial...
...striking floral palettes...
...and swaths of inviting landscape--green and lush in New York, subdued and classical in San Francisco--in which to sit and think.
From my perspective, however, the most interesting aspect of both places is which quotes were chosen for display. NCT and I share the theory that the garden designers essentially found as many horticultural references as possible and then picked the prettiest, and one reason that this theory stands is that the quotes, while totally devoid of context, often make absolutely no sense. For example, the following excerpt from King John stumped both of us, and I had re-read the play for a conference paper as recently as a year ago:

Others are remarkable for their usage of peculiar Shakespearean insult, such as the following quote from The Merry Wives of Windsor:

Giving crestfallen dry pears everywhere their due
Many of the quotes are in fact recognizable because of their high profile in literature and even pop culture, but these are still somewhat frustrating because their places in the plays can't always be ascertained, and so their full meaning cannot be completely understood. Granted, the plaques provide the exact location of these quotes, and it's not as though the Gardens can have giant displays of the plays in their entirety (or as if I or anyone else has all the plays memorized by heart). Maybe it's enough just to revel in the language itself, and to its allusions to the flowers planted around them. Furthermore, watching the Gardens echoing one another across the continent with complementary quotes is even more interesting. Both display the text of Romeo and Juliet, and each cite the holly from As You Like It:

And what is particularly striking is how resonant Shakespeare's language is across his plays, so that even quotes from different texts in these two Gardens end up reinforcing one another. The Hamlet quote from New York and The Winter's Tale quotation from San Francisco both metaphorically invoke a sense of loss through the gift of flowers; the chamomile from Henry IV alludes to the lost innocence of youth that results in those floral gifts, and the long heath of The Tempest also expresses the desperate longing behind those quotations, while The Taming of the Shrew's hazel twig Kate represents all of those lost objects of desire.
In any case, because of the thoughts that they provoke and the opportunities that they provide for imaginative possibility, the Gardens are ultimately more than the sum of these quotational parts. Shakespeare, of course, says it best--

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