The Garden Scene in Richard II is an important and pivotal moment in the play, fulfilling a variety of textual and dramatic requirements for both reader and audience. I personally found this scene to be one of my favorites, and when I examined just why I enjoyed it so much, I discovered that it had worked on me on a number of different levels, providing plot update, allegory, exposition, and character contrasts.

The first question to ask oneself in analyzing a scene, any scene, in Shakespeare, is "Why is it there?" What does it contribute to the overall flow and development of the play? Has it been inserted for purely practical, stage-oriented concerns? In the case of the Garden Scene, I see a number of things happening. Firstly, it occurs between two scenes in which Richard, Bolingbroke, and others are present, but between which some time has passed. This implies a costume change, and this little scene provides just such an opportunity. But this is far from the full measure of the scene's worth. In addition to its practical necessity, it also provides a much-needed respite from the increasingly mounting tension of the play; we are allowed to dally for a moment in the royal gardens before being thrust back into the action. We observe, for the better part of the scene, two humble gardeners, welcome company after three acts of nothing but kings and queens, lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses; particulary for any groundlings watching the play back in 1597, this was a pause in which to reflect and relate.

The gardeners in the scene provide not only menial services such as binding up the royal "apricocks," but are in fact far more valuable to the audience in their roles of, as it were, allegorical troubadours, offering a colorful and effective update to the plot thus far. This is made all the more delightful in that such high-flown metaphorical speech is unexpected; the queen has already announced to her ladies in waiting that the two men are sure to "talk of state, for everyone doth so/Against a change," (27-28) but our expectation, if we are not familiar with the play, is to hear some low, prosaic talk of politics from the point of view of the common man. Perhaps it was the convention in Shakespeare's day for menials in the service of the crown not to talk plainly about affairs of state, to shade their meanings in codes and circumlocution; in any case, the use of garden metaphors to describe recent events in the kingdom winds up being more effective, in a dramatic sense, than would be the case if the gardeners had engaged in casual conversation.

The first metaphorical reference is to the apricocks, which I took to refer to Richard himself, while the tree symbolizes England. His handling of the kingdom has caused it to "Stoop with oppression of their [his] prodigal weight." (31) Next, the main gardener instructs his man, "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." (33-36) Here we see the first blatant reference to the state. These lines, at first glance, might seem to continue to refer to Richard, to his impending doom, yet the last line reveals that it is, in fact, the first of many references to the king's favorites, the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, and Greene. The gardener continues to speak of these three, shifting his allegory from sprays, shoots of plants or flowers, to outright weeds. Here the image changes from unruly flowers sprouting up beyond their uniformly growing neighbors, to rank weeds, growing out of control and damaging the surrounding soil.

The gardener's man replies with a rather lengthy, eight-line question, basically inquiring why the two men should bother with such labor when the whole kingdom, "our sea-walled garden" as he says, is "full of weeds," "chok'd up," "unprun'd," "ruin'd," "disordered," and "swarming with caterpillars?" (40-47) He seems to have picked up the gardening analogy and run with it, using it to its utmost potential to rail against the deplorable state of affairs in his country. His use of the term "sea-walled" echoes Gaunt's speech in Act II Scene I, in which that hoary nobleman refers to "the silver sea/Which serves it [England] in the office of a wall." (45-46)

At this point, the gardener tells his assistant to "Hold thy peace--"(48) and returns to further contemplations of Richard. This time, in the gardener's reflections, Richard has become a tree himself, but a tree which has not only suffered a "disordered spring," but is now encountering the "fall of leaf." (48-49) These seasonal allusions illustrate the gardener's mentality, as well as point to Richard's misspent tenure as king and his current, autumnal hour of rule; winter and death are not far off.

Next, the gardener resumes his previous weed analogy and links it to that of the tree. He speaks of the weeds "That seemed in eating him [Richard] to hold him up," (51) and then proceeds to name said weeds, i.e. Wiltshire, Bushy, and Greene, as well as Bolingbroke, whom he goes on to make the gardener in his metaphoric scenario. This last bit doesn't quite work, for it portrays Bolingbroke as a gardener that would thoughtfully pull up weeds damaging a precious tree, only to chop down the tree itself! In addition, for the remainder of his speech, the tree metaphor tends to shift from symbolizing Richard to symbolizing Richard's court. The parallel is drawn between the pruning of "superfluous branches" (63) and the need to rule, not indulge, unworthy members of the royal entourage.

It is here that the queen, hitherto concealed, springs forth to question the gardeners more closely regarding the alarming news which she has overheard. The gardener tells her more plainly of what he knows of recent events, she laments for a bit and finally exits. The last thing she says to the gardener before departing is "for telling me these news of woe,/Pray God the plants thou graft'st may never grow," meaning, I suppose, that his forebodings should never come to fruition.

It is interesting to note that the gardener seems to know more about what is happening in the kingdom that the queen herself. It is my suspicion that the historical Isabel would have been kept appraised of everything that everyone did or said pertaining to herself and her husband. Medieval rulers were far more shrewd than what we are led to believe, and it seems to me that Shakespeare portrayed her as ignorant to achieve a certain dramatic dynamic.

The last speech of the scene is the gardener's, in which he plants "a bank of rue, sour herb of grace." (105) He plants the rue on the spot where one of the queen's tears has fallen, thus supplying the final gardening metaphor of the scene. The quibble on "rue" is the link between nature and the queen's sorrow.

There are, to be sure, many other points in the play in which metaphor is employed, but no scene where it is put to such potent and poignant use. The continual use of nature imagery is the key to the impact of this scene; it is significant as a symbol to contemporary audiences, but it was even more so to those who went to see the play in Elizabethan times. Nature was so much more a facet of the lives of English men and women 400 years ago, it held a sense of wholeness and order. Shakespeare often linked the violation of order within the realm of kings and kingdoms with a congruent dissolution of order in nature. In the Garden Scene, while no horses turn and eat one another, no hurricanoes blow, yet the basic concept of an interconnectedness between mankind and nature is deftly and effectively utilized.

The Garden Scene is Shakespeare at his metaphorical best, a deceptively simple little scene which yields so much more than simply an opportunity for a costume change. It provides perspective on the cyclical nature of the machinations of man.


Arden Shakespeare King Richard II
Oxford English Dictionary

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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