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Shakespeare at Vassar

The Vassar Shakespeare Garden

by Leslie C. Dunn
Associate Professor of English

On April 24, 1916, one day after the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, students from Winifred Smith’s Shakespeare class and Emmeline Moore’s botany class planted pansies—the flower of thoughts—in the old botanic garden behind New England building.1 This was the beginning of Vassar’s Shakespeare Garden. As the second-oldest Shakespeare garden in the United States, and the only one at a liberal arts college, it has a special place in Vassar’s history, as well as its own distinctive relationship to Shakespeare.2  In fact, as the documents in this exhibition show, Vassar’s Shakespeare Garden has always been as much about Vassar as the Bard. 

Fig. 16: Shakespeare Garden, spring 2015.

The origins of the Shakespeare Garden can be traced to New Place, Shakespeare’s last home in Stratford-upon-Avon, which had a large garden, including a mulberry tree said to have been planted by Shakespeare himself. By the 18th century this tree had become a shrine for Bardolators; the young David Garrick paid homage by sitting under it.3 In 1756 New Place’s owner, Reverend Francis Gastrell, tired of having so many visitors coming to see it, chopped it down. He sold the wood to Thomas Sharpe, who fashioned it into souvenirs that according to Sylvia Morris “almost assumed the status of holy relics.”4 Hence the Reverend Gastrell, vilified by posterity for his act of cultural vandalism, may have been the inadvertent inspiration for the modern “Shakespeare Garden”—a place where, in the words of Rebecca Bushnell, “we sense that through the substance of the plants themselves that we may touch the past.”5

!9th-century visitors to Stratford collected botanical mementos of Shakespeare’s birth-place: daisies from Holy Trinity churchyard, flowers from the banks of the river Avon, rosemary from near Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Emily Jordan Folger, Class of 1879, and her husband Henry (founders of the Folger Shakespeare Library) sent seeds from New Place to an American friend. At the same time, the Victorian revival of gardening coincided with a growing interest in the cultivation of flowers mentioned by Shakespeare. Illustrated books of “Shakespeare’s Flowers” became popular, serving both as entertainment and as resources for gardeners. Two such books from Vassar’s collections are included in the exhibition. Artist Walter Crane dedicated his Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden: A Posy from the Plays (1906) to the Countess of Warwick, who had a “Shakespeare border” in her garden in Essex; the title page shows her kneeling before a bust of Shakespeare with a floral tribute.7 Esther Singleton’s The Shakespeare Garden (1922) is a more scholarly work, containing a history of Renaissance gardens as well as essays on Shakespearean plants arranged by season, and “practical suggestions for making a correct Shakespeare garden” of one’s own.8 

Fig. 17: Students working in the garden, circa 1916

As Singleton’s reference to horticultural correctness implies, by the early 20th century the defining elements of a modern Shakespeare garden had been established. Garden designs varied. Some were historical reconstructions of a formal Elizabethan garden, enclosed by walls or hedges, with terraces, gravel walks, and beds laid out in geometrical patterns called “knots.”9 Others created a romanticized Shakespearean plantscape in the form of a Victorian cottage garden or a “wild bank.”10 All featured flowers and herbs mentioned by Shakespeare, sometimes grown from seeds from Stratford-upon-Avon, each labeled with a quotation from the works. Most gardens included a sundial, and some had a statue of the Bard. The result was “a panoply of Shakespearean vegetative associations.”11 

The construction of Vassar’s Shakespeare Garden was part of its tercentenary celebrations. The first planting of pansies was followed by marigolds, valerian, and rue, “all from Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford-upon-Avon. . . presented by Mrs. MacCracken, Dr. Thelberg, and Mrs. Folger respectively.”12 In the July 1916 issue of the Vassar Quarterly Winifred Smith wrote about a series of events that “have kept the poet’s name before us throughout the year,” culminating in a “formal festival” on Founder’s Day with a performance of The Tempest “by moonlight and torch-light.”13 Of the garden Smith wrote that Shakespeare “could only rejoice in another honor we are about to pay him”:

On a beautiful hillside, sloping westward toward the brook, plans are being laid out for many plots of homely English herbs and flowers neatly ordered around an old sun-dial and a “pleached bower,” within an English hedge. Bacon’s essay on Gardens offers suggestions for arrangement, Elizabethan plays furnish the names of the plants and trees to be set out, students of Shakespeare work out a complete catalogue of desiderata, which it is hoped alumnae and friends of the college may provide, the instructor in botany and her class provide the necessary special knowledge of the earth, and time . . . will bring the scheme to completion.14
Fig. 17: Students reading in the Shakespeare Garden, circa 1945

Smith’s description captures what was uniquely “Vassar” about the Shakespeare Garden: it was conceived as an integral part of the curriculum, a site for both scholarly research and hands-on learning. It was also a multidisciplinary project, uniting knowledge of Shakespeare with “knowledge of the earth.” And since it involved faculty and students working together, it was a forerunner of the collaborative research projects that are an important part of Vassar education today. Finally, the garden’s creators reached out to involve the larger Vassar community; their donations of funding, plants, and labor over the years would make it even more of a Vassar Shakespeare garden.

Documents in the exhibition testify to this vision. The first is a letter dated May 8, 1916 from Emmeline Moore to G.E. Dimock, Chairman of the Executive Committee, reporting on the garden’s construction and requesting further funds; she also reassures Dimock that “[the] transformation of the character of the garden should not lessen its worth as an adjunct to the botanic equipment.“15 Also included are early photographs of students working in the garden and a copy of the November 1916 issue of the Quarterly, in which alumnae were invited to contribute plants from a list presumably based on the “catalogue of desiderata” mentioned by Winifred Smith.16 

From its earliest days the garden was also used as an outdoor theatre. For the first anniversary on April 22, 1917, members of the Shakespeare class performed a scene from Act 4 of The Winter’s Tale—probably Perdita’s “flower speech,” which mentions many of the plants on the 1916 list. The performance was described in the Miscellany Weekly as an embodied synthesis of “Shakespeare” and “garden:” 

The scene was given very informally, the players reading their lines, and wearing simple impromptu costumes. The whole effect was a very pleasant one, the sighing pine trees on the slope behind, the amusing speeches of the players, and the garden below, literally growing before one’s eyes.17    

In 1922 a “large and enthusiastic audience” came early on a Saturday morning to see a production of A Winter’s Tale given by students of Miss Sandison’s Shakespeare class, who had “rehearsed the play only in class-time, aiming at a full interpretation and ‘local color’ rather than technical perfection.” Like Professors Smith and Moore, Professor Sandison engaged her students with Shakespeare as both scholars and creators: they performed the play uncut and included “old Elizabethan songs wherever research could unearth them.”18 

The 1920s saw the first revisions to the garden’s design. In October 1923 the Miscellany News announced that the “flower beds are to be entirely remodeled,” with a “round plot of rose bushes on each side of the central path…framed on three sides by long beds which are to contain flowers of old English literature such as marigolds, primroses, and violets.”19 The newspaper continued to print articles about the garden throughout the 1920s, suggesting strong student interest and affection. A May 1930 article began: “There is hardly a girl with soul so dead that she has not watched spring in the Shakespeare garden with a certain thrill.” It described the garden as “a charming old-fashioned one in which there are flowers mentioned by Shakespeare,” adding that “Mr. Downer [the college horticulturist] has a plan of labeling those flowers with their respective quotations.”20

Between the 1930s and the 1970s the Shakespeare Garden largely vanished from Vassar publications, though photographs in Special Collections show how it continued to be used for class meetings, performances, study, and relaxation. The garden did receive some press attention in 1961, when the Sunday New York Times mentioned it briefly: “A striking feature at Vassar’s garden are the stylized statues depicting characters from some of the plays.”21 Three of those statues are still in the garden today, and have become one of its most iconic features (a recent photograph of them is included in the exhibition) but any connection with Shakespearean characters is, alas, only in the mind’s eye. In the mid 19th century Matthew Vassar brought twenty-six statues from Italy to adorn his Poughkeepsie estate, Springside. By October 1918 at least five of them were on the Vassar campus: two at the entrance to The Circle (where Noyes now stands) and three in the garden. The Miscellany News identified them as “‘The Old-Clothes Man’ with a nose straight from the Vassar Brewery, and two of his cronies, one of them minus an eye, the other with an empty sleeve and a suspiciously German looking war cross on his proud though patched person.”22  The 2016 group includes a female figure, perhaps the “Bride” that stood in The Circle in 1918, but the one-eyed figure has been lost.

Over the years both statues and other garden ornaments appeared, disappeared, or were moved. In 1951 Emily R. Poucher, a local artist, wrote to ask about the statues that appeared in her painting of the garden: “Have those two little stone figures at the top of the steps—near the big trees—have any story or significance? Do you know where they came from?” 23 By April 1976, according to The Miscellany News, those statues had gone missing, along with an “ivy-covered sundial surrounded by marigolds in the center of the garden,” a Grecian urn, and a brass globe. The article further lamented the overall deterioration of the garden: “Plain grass grows in the old flower beds where daffodils formerly grew in the upper terraces. The stream is eating into the southern portion of the garden where two more flower beds have become overgrown with neglect.”24  

The 1970s were a low point in the garden’s history. Temporary pipelines crossed it during the construction of Olmsted in 1973, and the markers identifying the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays were moved. In January 1974 Secretary of the College Lynn Bartlett wrote to a concerned alumna, assuring her that “now that the building has been completed, we can start improving the garden, and I shall ask our horticulturist, Mr. Sven Sward, what can be done about labeling the plants.”25 But Mr. Sward, who had cared for the garden for decades, died in 1975 and was not replaced due to a financial crisis.26 In November 1976 The Miscellany News reported on student efforts to save the garden: the Vassar Horticultural Society announced its intention “to institute a five year plan to make the gardens as authentic as possible.”27  

In the fall of 1977, Vassar students and faculty joined with members of the Poughkeepsie Vassar Club to restore the garden.28 Biology professor Lawrence Halfen and his botany class worked to clear debris and planted 3700 new bulbs; in the spring, according to Vassar Views, another student team would complete this task, overseen by Dean T. Mace, Chair of the English department, whose scholarship would “make certain that only genuine ‘Shakespeare flowers’ make up the unique floral display.”29  Sara Boonin ’78, a biology major, did an independent research project on the garden, advised by Professors Halfen and Mace. She recommended twenty-four herbs and flowers, chosen both for their Shakespearean associations and for their suitability to the climate of the American Northeast. Her project also included plans for the various beds, designed by members of the Class of 1979.30  

In 1981 the garden was threatened again when the Master Planning Committee announced that a new chemistry building would be built either on or near its site. Sara Richardson, who ran the greenhouse behind New England Building (now demolished), was charged with removing all the plants and bulbs from the garden in anticipation of the construction. Eventually Mudd was built on a different site, but once again students rallied in support of the garden, leading to a dramatic and mysterious act of protest. Early in the morning of February 2, 1982, approximately 6000 books were removed from the Library’s reserve room. A note attached to the door read: “If you ever want to see these reserve books again, you will begin planning the complete restoration of the Shakespeare Garden immediately;” it was signed “Timon of Athens.”31  The books were discovered in a nearby room, but the perpetrator was never identified.

By the fall of 1983 the restoration was again underway, thanks in part to a senior gift from the class of 1983. Computer science professor Leila DeCampo revived the tradition of using the garden for education by creating a multidisciplinary project for students in her course, “Computers in the Nonnumerical World”: they each wrote programs to store information about the plants they were researching, including botanical descriptions, folklore, uses, and Shakespearean references. “Because the garden was in such disarray,” Professor DeCampo said, “we felt a kind of missionary purpose.”32

The celebrations of 2016 recall those of 1916, with some contemporary touches. On April 24th students celebrated both the garden’s 100th birthday and Shakespeare’s “400th ‘Death-a-versary’” with a festival that included performances, short talks by faculty members, sword-fighting lessons and other Shakespeare-related activities. The festival poster depicts a Zombie Shakespeare leaning on the garden’s sundial, a witty 21st-century play on the “immortal Bard.”  Another highlight of the centenary celebration was the Merely Players performance of Arden of Faversham, an anonymous Elizabethan play of which Shakespeare is believed to have been a co-author. Directed by Rob Leinheiser ’16, the production made imaginative use of the garden’s topography (much of the action took place around the sundial), and incorporated original music, including new settings of a 17th-century ballad and songs from Shakespeare’s plays

As for the garden itself, it has become less “Shakespearean” in recent years; the original hemlock hedge has grown into a row of giant trees, and only two of the beds are still devoted to plants mentioned by Shakespeare. But plans are being made to restore the garden once again, while across the Fonteyn Kill another major restoration project is underway. The Edith Roberts Ecological Laboratory, a “unique outdoor classroom” founded in the 1920s by the pioneering Vassar ecologist, is being brought back to life by a group of faculty and students led by biology professor Margaret Ronsheim.33 Perhaps, then, we can look forward to new collaborations between Shakespeare and science by the willow that grows aslant a brook.

NOTES

1 In Act 4 scene 5 of Hamlet Ophelia says, “There’s pansies; that’s for thoughts” (TLN 2929). For a concise history of the Shakespeare Garden see the article in the Vassar Encyclopedia: https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/buildings-grounds/grounds/shakespeare-garden.html

2 The first American Shakespeare garden, in New York’s Central Park, was created in 1913, and officially renamed the Shakespeare Garden in 1916 to commemorate the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. Wellesley College held inaugural ceremonies for a Shakespeare garden in 1916, though it apparently no longer exists. See Nicola J. Watson, “Gardening with Shakespeare,” Celebrating Shakespeare: Commemoration and Cultural History, ed. Clara Calvo and Coppélia Kahn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 321-24.

3 Watson, “Gardening,” 302.

4 Sylvia Morris, “Shakespeare’s mulberry and New Place,” The Shakespeare Blog, July 31, 2014, http://theshakespeareblog.com/2014/07/shakespeares-mulberry-and-new-place/

5 Rebecca W. Bushnell, “Gardens, Memory and History: The Shakespeare and Modern Elizabethan Garden,” Change Over Time 3.1 (Spring 2013), 66.

6 Watson, “Gardening,” 304.

7 Walter Crane, Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden: A Posy from the Plays, [London]: Cassell, 1906.

8 Esther Singleton, The Shakespeare Garden (New York: William Farquhar Payson, 1931), 41. 

 9 Watson, “Gardening,” 313.

10 Bushnell, “Gardens,” 68.

11 Winifred Smith, “The Shakespeare Tercentenary at Vassar,” Vassar Quarterly 1.3 (July 2016), 202. Vassar Newspaper Archives, http://newspaperarchives.vassar.edu/ All citations from Vassar publications are taken from this database.

12 Smith, “The Shakespeare Tercentenary,” 202.

13 Emmeline Moore, typescript letter to G.E. Dimock, dated 8 May 1916, Vassar College Library Special Collections, Shakespeare Subject File 7:14.

14 Ellen B. Finley ’16 and Miriam M. Marsh ’16, “For the Shakespeare Garden,” Vassar Quarterly 2.1 (November 1916), 61-62.

15 “Sweeter Than the Lids of Juno’s Eyes,” Vassar Miscellany News, 27 April 1917. 

16 “Shakespeare Students Present Winter’s Tale,” Vassar Miscellany News, 10 May 1922.

17 “College Grounds Show Improvement,” Vassar Miscellany News, 6 October 1923.

18 “Drama Class Instituted the Shakespeare Garden,” Vassar Miscellany News, 21 May 1930.

19 Ruth Alda Ross, “Gardens to See: Shakespeare Memorials Are Located in Urban Areas from Coast to Coast,” New York Times, 3 September 1961, X25. 

20 “Our Quaint Visitors,” Vassar Miscellany News, 5 October 1918.

21 Manuscript letter to D.A. Plum from Emily R. Poucher, dated October 16, 1951. Vassar College Special Collections, Shakespeare Subject File 7:14.

22 Deborah Thomson, “In Limbo Between Old and New, Garden Erodes,” Vassar Miscellany News, 16 April 1976.

23 Typescript letter from Lynn Bartlett to Marjorie Davenport Casselman ‘13 dated January 4, 1974, in response to her letter of November 5, 1973 (copy in file). Vassar College Special Collections, Shakespeare Subject File 7:14.

24 “Vassar Greenhouses,” Vassar Encyclopedia, https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/buildings-grounds/grounds/greenhouses.html

25 Judiann Walter, “Gardens May Grow Again,” Vassar Miscellany News,
19 November 1976.

26 Headnote to Sara Boonin ‘78, “Planning and Planting a Shakespeare Garden,” Vassar Quarterly 75:2 (Winter 1979), 28. 

27 “Flowers that Bloom in the Spring,” Vassar Views 50 (December 1977), 2-3.

28 The Quarterly printed extracts from Boonin’s research project, including some of the plant descriptions, but did not include the designs; I found
these in a typescript that Margaret Ronsheim, Professor of Biology, shared with me. 

29 Matthew Kaufman, “Reserve Books Removed,” Miscellany News, 5 February 1982.

30 “The Shakespeare Garden as you like it,” Vassar Quarterly 80.1 (Fall 1983), 34-35.

31 Larry Hertz, “Reclaiming the Edith Roberts Ecological Laboratory,” Vassar College URSI website, July 14, 2016. http://ursi.vassar.edu/about/stories/features/2015-2016/160714-ursi-restoration-ecology.html