Date of Award
Hospitals in the twenty-first century are using healing gardens to help patients heal their minds, bodies, and souls by offering views of lush flora from their rooms and calming pathways for their walks. Recent studies have shown that patients who are able to witness nature’s beauty request less pain medication and report shorter stays. Today’s use of gardens as part of a total wellness package may have found its roots in the work of John Gerard (1597) who was the first to study and catalog over 300 varieties of plants and herbs, many of which had common medicinal uses. Gerard’s findings, including the sleep-induced power of the mandrake root and the sexual significance of Orchis masculata, found their way into early modem playwrights’ works, such as William Shakespeare, whose plays include more than 200 references to an enormous variety of plants and flowers.
The natural, or “green world,” as described by Northrop Frye is a place of magic and often used in Renaissance comedies as a place where characters can escape society’s trappings, where problems are magically solved and lives are put to rights. Surprisingly, early modem tragedy also calls upon the power of the green world, using garden-lovely language to create a space where women in particular go to mourn. Isabella in The Spanish Tragedy (1587) is one such character who, having lost her only son in a brutal murder, returns to the place of the crime, her enclosed family garden. In a haunting soliloquy Isabella journeys through the five stages of grief, ending in an acceptance of her son’s death and her own impending doom. Obviously, the beautiful flowers and trees do not provide a cure; but Isabella, through the destruction of the innocent flora that witnessed the heinous crime, is transformed. She makes the decision to end her life and join her son, rather than live a life immobilized with fear and resentment.
Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet (1601) is another female character in mourning, crazed about her dead father, Polonius, as well as for Hamlet who once offered her tenders of love but now seems a stranger to her. She must somehow deal with the fact that he killed her father, and she does this by visiting the garden to pick herbs and wildflowers. Before she returns to the castle, 120 lines are delivered on stage, giving Ophelia time to transcend her own misfortune. The garden’s beauty may not have offered her a solution, but it does provide the only place where this young woman feels safe - within the confines of her own mind.
Both Isabella and Ophelia die but not before a considerable amount of time within their own garden walls, seeking ways to cope with the horrific tragedies in their lives. Kyd and Shakespeare planted the seeds that the modem world is learning to nurture: the green world can be the balm for life’s tragic events. Like these Renaissance tragic heroines, we may be seeking the “fair quiet” that Andrew Marvell longs for in his poem “The Garden.” These tragedies do end in death but not before the green world offers us some comforting shade.
Steelman, Sheridan Lynn, "Transcending Tragedy: The Power of the Green World in Renaissance Drama" (2009). Masters Theses. 698.