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A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare

 

Link to Interview with Gerard Brender à Brandis

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“I know a bank where the wild thyme grows”: A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare    

“Though not a botanist, Shakespeare as a poet and dramatist wrote many memorable lines about flowering plants.  These have inspired artists over the ages, to whose works we hope the engravings in this book will be a worthy addition.”

              —F. David Hoeniger

A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare, with woodcut engravings created by Gerard Brender à Brandis and quotations selected and interpreted by F. David Hoeniger, is a detailed and thoughtful juxtaposition of verbal and visual texts.  It is an artistic exploration of the subtle yet rich reoccurring theme of flowers and plant life in much of Shakespeare’s writing.  First, passages are selected from the plays that describe (or use metaphorically) botanicals.  In some cases, intense research and analysis was required to tease out meaning from the language and names of flowers that have been changed or lost over time.  Once the plant that Shakespeare had been describing was determined, Hoeniger further provides explanations for why Shakespeare might have chosen a particular plant for particular passages, includes background meanings and symbolism inherent in the choices, and creates further context for the quotation through historical, medical, magical, and botanical explanations. 

Accompanying these textual descriptions are illustrative prints of the plant or flower referenced in the quotation.  For example, a section of Iago’s speech from Othello is cited: “Not poppy, nor mandragora, / Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world / Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep / Which thou ow’dst yesterday” (3.3.330-333).  The following explanatory text describes how the poppy is used in this context to connote the poison-like jealousy Iago has set creeping into Othello’s mind.  The explanation further comments on the presence and use of opium in Shakespeare’s time noting, interestingly, that at that time the opium poppy was used solely as a garden ornament in England, while the narcotic itself was transported to England from the Far East. 

Poppy flower with text
The Opium Poppy page from Brender à Brandis, Gerard, and F. David Hoeniger's A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare

This interpretive re-creation of Shakespeare’s text becomes a process of adaptation.  A Gathering of Flowers focuses on an adaptive process of interpreting text and expressing those interpretations visually.  The authors visualize and then actualize the imagery that Shakespeare imagines in his writing through the printed image.  Visual adaptation involves the interpretation and relay of meaning; to approach a text from a visual standpoint becomes a way of rethinking the text.  This type of translation involves the balance of both an intuitive and an analytical reading of the text, so inevitably, there will be changes and subjective decisions made, resulting in (what one can argue is) a visual adaptation of Shakespeare.   

Brender à Brandis has had three other books published with The Porcupine’s Quill, all of which are a showcase of wood engraving prints of rural and plant life.  So, why tie this theme to Shakespeare in A Gathering of Flowers?  Why create a book like this?  It can be used as a didactic tool; an artistic and educational illustration of close reading and interpretation of Shakespearean texts; it also shows what kind of visual richness can be wrought from Shakespeare’s textual materials; also (and this is Brender à Brandis preferred interpretation) it is simply a showcase for an individual artist’s work and interests.  Choosing to create and publish a book like is also a gesture toward the inherent cultural capital generally associated with a Shakespearean production—or the “idea” of Shakespeare—which becomes a way to generate interest and draw in audiences.  

It can be argued that A Gathering of Flowers is aimed at three demographical groups: people with a general interest in gardening and botany, people who search for clarification of the sometimes-puzzling Shakespearean plant references, and Shakespeare aficionados.  This collection of images follows in a tradition of many other books focusing on the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s works such as, Plant Lore and Garden Craft of Shakespeare by Henry N. Ellacombe (considered to be the authoritative source for plant references in Shakespeare’s work).  The book is also reminiscent of the work of William Blake, who illustrated his own literary works through engravings.  It is a study of what visual translation can bring to or take away from a theatrical text, how it can inform the reading of a performance text; it is at once illuminating and limiting: it provides a visual understanding of some of Shakespeare’s image-rich passages, while at the same time, it only presents one interpretation of these images. 

A page from Brender a Brandis, Gerard, and F. David Hoeniger's A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare
The Titania's Bank of Flowers page from Brender à Brandis, Gerard, and F. David Hoeniger's A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare

Brender à Brandis, a member of the Society of Wood Engravers who has produced hundreds of drawings, wood engravings and watercolours of flowering plants, created the prints using engraver's original wooden blocks, handset "Libra" type and an 1882 Albion handpress.  The images were printed onto pure rag, handmade paper (Papeterie St-Gilles) and then bound by hand between covers made of damask silk. (1,2,3) The original book, a limited run of hand-bound prints, was only produced in a series of ninety-seven copies.  The current trade edition, made publicly available from The Porcupine's Quill, has the text re-set in Cartier font with actual-size reproductions of the engravings included.  Brender à Brandis, an artist based out of Stratford, Ontario, initiated the project.  Although Brender à Brandis does not consider this book to be particularly Canadian, it nevertheless is influenced by the presence of Shakespeare in Canada since Stratford itself is home to both the Stratford Festival as well as The Shakespearean Gardens.  

F. David Hoeniger chose and interpreted the text that accompanies each print.  A Professor Emeritus who taught in the English department at the University of Toronto, Hoeniger cites excerpts from a wide span of Shakespearean texts ranging from plays to sonnets. 

Resources

1 “A Gathering of Flowers” Gallery Stratford.  20 October 2006. <http://www.gallerystratford.on.ca/exhibitions/touring_brandis.htm>

2 Brender à Brandis, Gerard, and F. David Hoeniger.  A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare.  Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2006.

3 Inkster, Tim.  “A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare.” 27 April 2006. The Porcupine's Quill.  October 2006. <http://www.sentex.net/~pql/shakesp.html>

4 Brender à Brandis, Gerard.  “Gathering.”  E-mail to Shauna Thompson.  31 October 2006.

5 Brender à Brandis, Gerard.  “Re: Gathering.”  E-mail to Shauna Thompson.  12 November 2006.

 

Shauna Thompson

 

Link to Interview with Gerard Brender à Brandis

Link to Learning Commons

 


 

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