The Gardener

In memory of David Gould.

Shakespeare Institute Garden in spring. Author photo.

In Richard II, the gardener addresses one of his assistants:

Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
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,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.
You thus employ’d, I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Richard II 3.4.30-40

Like a minister or a king, Shakespeare’s gardener commands the work of tending the various garden tasks in terms that a ruler might readily employ. He allocates the necessary tasks, dividing labor amongst his helpers, making certain that they see to the garden’s various needs in the same way that a king or queen might look to the function of their realm. He guides his underlings to support the fruitful, and diminish the height of the overpowering elements, while he himself tends to the nutrient stealing weeds.

Weeds represent negative forces, stealing vitality from the garden and the state. In Hamlet, the titular prince reimagines the entire world as a neglected garden:

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah, fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

Hamlet 1.2.135-7

Weeds at an old vineyard fence. Author photo.

The image of stifling weeds indicates Denmark’s decay. An unweeded garden disintegrates. Things go to seed, spiral out of control. The rough winds shake the darling buds of May and deafen even falcons.

Similarly, in Richard II, the ‘noisome’ weeds stand in opposition to more ‘wholesome’ flowers–even to the vision of what a garden might be, which, of course, projects many possibilities across the seasons. The gardener himself, with his candid and honest way of speaking, illustrates a kind of marked and measured progression. He is not only the commander of his domain, but also its sage. His orders lead us through a cycle of activities necessary for both the garden and the country: supporting, pruning, and cultivating. His assistants bind up heavily laden boughs, and cut back the sprays which have over extended to the point of imbalance. The gardener himself turns to essential cultivation of the soil–removing malignant and parasitic growth which impedes the nurturing foundation for more desirable plants.

Spring dew on a Warwickshire hedgerow sprays. Author photo.

Shakespeare’s gardeners, like all those who work with the soil, embody wisdom. Yet Hamlet‘s gravedigger looks backwards at remembrance, personifying the grimly wise humour of finality, while the gardener in Richard II describes an arc of tending and nurturance. One character crafts the soil into sepulchre, the other into cradle. The gardener’s specific care and attention fosters blossoming and fructifying, in the same way that a good king or queen’s methods promote the healthiest characteristics in a state or nation.

Under the right ruler, a garden or a nation may bear delicious fruit.

Wild strawberry. Author photo.

Or it may literally or figuratively bloom in indescribably beautiful ways. In early spring, rains bring forth the first blossoms.

Spring rain in the Shakespeare Institute garden. Author photo.
Warwickshire snowdrops. Author photo.

While trees still look stark and bleak, the ground erupts with early harbingers of warmer weather.

Croci and narcissi in front of Marie Corelli’s folly–the Shakespeare Institute garden in late winter. Author photo.

Later, towards high summer, many spectacular but slower blossoms truly come into their own.

First blushing rosebud. Author photo.
High summer roses in bloom. Author photo.

The gardener, who looks after his or her corner of the earth, not only sees and knows all of this, but also shapes it in wondrous ways, having seen it all, year after year.

In Richard II, the gardener and his men become increasingly specific with their parallels about King Richard’s downfall:


Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?


Hold thy peace:
He that hath suffer’d this disorder’d spring
Hath now himself met with the fall of leaf:
The weeds which his broad-spreading leaves did shelter,
That seem’d in eating him to hold him up,
Are pluck’d up root and all by Bolingbroke–
I mean the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, Green.


What, are they dead?


They are; and Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit-trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself:
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:
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.

Richard II 3.4.41-68

When the queen overhears this conversation, she demands of the gardener, “How dares thy harsh rude tongue sound this unpleasing news?”

To which he replies simply, “Pardon me, madam. Little joy have I
To breathe this news, yet what I say is true.”*

The gardener speaks simple natural truth with both tongue and hands. His actions His words are not open to alternative facts, but instead, like the course of nature, reflect the way the world actually is and has been. The gardener knows better than anyone that divisions between the human and the natural world are only false distinctions–that we are all parts of the same whole.

Even Shakespeare’s witty reprobate from the Henriad**, Sir John Falstaff, at the moment of his death “babbled of green fields” “and play[ed] with flowers”. Perhaps even more significantly, he “parted ev’n just between twelve and one, ev’n at the turning o’th’ tide.”***

The best gardens articulate all of nature, embodying it in microcosm. In supervising and governing the changes in their parcels of earth, gardeners become like deities. Enlisted to utilize their quiet, subtle, and profound art to underscore the best of nature’s grand effects, the gardener guides and coaxes, working with nature through all seasons and all weathers. To lose a gardener is to lose the world.

It is no secret that the Shakespeare Institute lost her caretaker and gardener this past week, just before Shakespeare’s birthday. David worked at the Institute for thirty five years, and his loss has been keenly felt by almost everyone who ever passed through the Institute’s hallways and gardens. More than a gardener, and much more than a caretaker, David’s consummate skill in looking after everything in the ancient house and grounds was exceeded only by the quiet, unassuming reassurance of his stalwart support of Institute students, facuty, and staff. To my knowledge, he attended every production the Shakespeare Institute Players put on while he was there. Kind and capable, patient, and understanding, he projected the best in each of us.

Still, for those who spent time there, it is the glory of the Institute gardens that many of us remember so well.

The advent of spring at the Shakespeare Institute. Author photo.

With David gone, even after the pandemic subsides, the Shakespeare Institute halls will remain emptier. David will always remain there in memory for as long as the place may stand, and it is truly difficult to imagine the place without his gently impressive presence.

Shakespeare Institute Hall. Author photo.

We always hope that what happens on earth is reflected in heaven or in some good place beyond what we know here. Sometimes, the beyond seems close enough that we can almost see it, almost touch it. We hope so.

Earth and heaven in the Welcombe hills. Author photo.

If there should be a garden in heaven, it isn’t difficult to believe that it might be much like David’s garden at the Shakespeare Institute–a commonwealth underscoring the beauty in scholarly reflection. I’m sure that some higher power would be happy to have David look after such a celestial plot, if he should wish it. It would be impossible to imagine anyone finer for the task.


Revisited the Institute after a long absence, to find how much David had been missed. How much he still was missed.

David’s memorial stone in the Shakespeare Institute Garden. Author photo.


Yes, David. Thank you. We are all much luckier for having known you.

*Richard II 3.4.75 and 82-3.

**Sir John Falstaff appears in 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and his death is described in Henry V. A version of the character also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

***Henry V 2.3.13, 15-6, and 11-2. Mistress Quickly describes Falstaff’s death in terms of his character’s natural force, but it has been noted that she may consciously recognize that Falstaff not only may have recited Psalm 23, but (especially with the seemingly still waters at the turning of the tide) he may personify it:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

Psalm 23, 1-2 KJV

6 Replies to “The Gardener”

  1. A lovely spotlighting of gardens and gardener, Johnny. Beautiful. I’m sorry for your loss.

      1. I did not mean to avoid the death of the long-cherished gardener. My thought was that in death in the natural world–i.e., autumn–is always the glorious promise of spring. But I should have been far more explicit.
        Again, many thanks, and spring blessings

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