Plant Cuttings

Bearded bardic botanist, bruised but not bested?

Could the mysterious portrait of a bearded man within a botany herbal be none-other than the greatest English writer William Shakespeare?
Image: From The Herball, Or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard. Published by John Norton, London, 1597.
Image: From The Herball, Or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard. Published by John Norton, London, 1597.

An association between botany and literature is extremely old, from the agricultural references in the cuneiform script of the Code of Hammurabi (ruler of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 BC) and the parable of the lilies in the field as featured in the Holy Bible, to the 9th century gardening exhortations in the Capitulary of Villis of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in the 20th century.

Now that association seems to have been forever cemented in dramatic fashion by the discovery of the likeness of the man widely regarded as the ‘greatest writer in the English language’ in a 16th century herbal ( ‘a collection of descriptions of plants put together for medicinal purposes’). The ‘writer’ in question is none other than William Shakespeare: the book is The Herball, Or Generall Historie of Plantes * by John Gerard , an Elizabethan botanist and herbalist.

The announcement of the discovery was made by Mark Griffiths (‘one of Britain’s leading plant experts… Editor of The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, the largest work on horticulture ever published, and the author or editor of numerous other books on gardening and botany’). Griffiths and Edward Wilson (BLitt, MA, FSA, FLS, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, University of Oxford, UK) had spent five years consulting Latin and Shakespeare scholars before going public, their work having involved the deciphering of an Elizabethan code.

Not unexpectedly, the claim – that this is the only likeness of Shakespeare produced in the wordsmith’s lifetime – is disputed, not least because the revelation was made in Country Life, which, whilst it may be the ‘quintessential English magazine’, is not a peer-reviewed journal. So, as is this modern way, this ‘publication’ is being subjected to vigorous post-publication peer review.

Whilst I’m probably not qualified to rebut all of the arguments, I can at least contribute some botanical expertise in debunking one of them. Professor Michael Dobson (Director of the Shakespeare Institute at the UK’s University of Birmingham) pooh-poohs Griffiths’ interpretation on the rather flimsy grounds that he ‘can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook’. Well, we can. So here goes…

References to plants and botanics feature widely in many of Shakespeare’s plays and it has been claimed that Shakespeare’s ‘botanical sophistication is at a level near that of the herbalists of the time’. Both Shakespeare and Gerard had a shared interest in members of the Solanaceae and Cucurbitaceae, with examples of native English species and those newly introduced to Europe from the New World featuring both in the Bard’s plays and Gerard’s Herball. Furthermore, it’s been proposed by Griffiths that Shakespeare actually helped Gerard in preparation of the herbal with Greek and Latin translations, and acted as a ‘script doctor’.

So what better way than for a noted herbalist to link his work with those of dramatist and playwright Shakespeare as a mark of mutual respect, and to thank him for script-editing services (and maybe also in the hope that more botanical references may feature in the playwright’s work, which may have as a knock-on effect additional interest in, and sales of, Gerard’s herbal…)? Not that this is necessarily evidence – it’s certainly not been subject to peer-review (although my botanical mate Dave has given it the once-over!) – and doesn’t express a view on the disputed drawing, but it is at least a botanical counter to Dobson’s objection. After all, if Shakespeare** is a botanist, then we fellow botanists – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers – must stick up for him, and each other!

* Published in London in 1597, Gerard’s herbal was reportedly the most widely circulated botany book in English in the 17th century.

** Anyway, what literary figure’s image would be better to illustrate such a herbal, Christopher Marlowe’s…? Discuss…

[For those curious to see the image that’s caused such interest, Gerard’s tome can be viewed online thanks to the Wageningen UR Library – the page in question is within Icons 1–6… – Ed.]

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