15. Nations Are Like Gardens with Noisome Weeds & Wholesome Herbs — & Children, Fruit Trees with Superfluous Branches

Dozens of botanical analogies throughout the Shakespeare canon all have a Northern origin (i.e., come from the works of Thomas North). This includes what is likely the most famous and extended botanical metaphor in the canon: the garden-scene in Richard II (3.4.29-66). In the relevant exchange, a gardener and a servant have a political discussion in which they compare the upkeep of commonwealths with the tending of orchards and gardens. Some nations are like land with fertile soil: they nurture both noisome weeds and wholesome herbs. They must be weeded like gardens, or like fruit trees, their superfluous branchesmust be cut off so the other boughs may thrive.

As shown below, this necessarily derives from related botanical commentary in two different works by North, The Dial and Plutarch’s Lives.

North’s Dial and Plutarch’s LivesShakespeare’s Richard II
    Alcibiades … was not altogether so corrupt, neither simply evil: but as they say of the land of Egypt, that for the fatness and lustiness of the soil, it bringeth forth both wholesome herbs and also noisome weeds
–Plutarch’s Lives 584

  [Chapter title:] Tutors of …children ought to [ensure they] do not accustom themselves in vices while they are young… Tutors and Master of Princes and great Lords … ought to know from what evils or wicked customs they ought to withdraw them: For when the trees are tender and young, it is more necessary to bow them and cut off the superfluous branches with knives than to gather their fruits with baskets –The Dial 343-44  

O, what pity is it –The Dial 650    
Gardener: Go bind thou up young dangling apricots Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner
Cut off the heads of too-fast-growing sprays   
… I will go root away
The noisome weeds which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.
Man:        … the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined,
Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs Swarming with caterpillars? …
Gardener:        O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land
As we this garden! …
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have lived to bear and he to taste
Their fruits of duty. Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live 3.4.29-39, 43-47, 55-57, 61-64
fatness of the soil, land; noisome weeds, wholesome herbs, children-in vices, young, trees, cut off,
superfluous branches, their fruits
O, what pity is it
the soil’s fertility, land; noisome weeds, wholesome herbs, unruly children, young, trees, cut off,
superfluous branches, their fruits
O, what pity is it

Two of the closely related lines juxtapose several rare terms within 15 words:

Plutarch’s Lives:and lustiness of the soil,it bringeth forth both wholesome herbs and also noisome weeds (584)

Richard II: The noisome weeds which without profit suck/ The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers./… her wholesome herbs (3.4.38-46)

A search of Early English Books Online confirms Shakespeare’s debt for both passages.

This is one of many examples in which the playwright is able to recall two different passages from North –appearing in different works — and conflate them in the same extended speech or exchange.

Notice also that North uses a peculiar expression for fertility, describing it as the fatness of the soil that helps bring forth weeds. Henry IV also uses a similar statement in another extended horticultural analogy: “Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,” the King says about his son. And, as will be shown in an upcoming example in English Histories, it is again clear that the dramatist was recalling two other Northern passages:

2 thoughts on “15. Nations Are Like Gardens with Noisome Weeds & Wholesome Herbs — & Children, Fruit Trees with Superfluous Branches

Leave a Reply