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Plant-Powered Shakespeare: Botanics and Gendered Violence in Titus Andronicus and Richard II

By AnnaClare Sung

TW: This essay contains references to violence throughout and a brief mention of SA in the author’s analysis of power and violence in Titus Andronicus. 

Flowers, trees, corn, and apricots—the floral and botanical motifs in Titus Andronicus and Richard II present Shakespeare’s gardens as plentiful and peculiar. While this imagery possesses aesthetic functions, it also parallels concepts of power. In “Botanical Shakespeares,” Jean Feerick discusses race and Shakespeare’s plant imagery in Titus Andronicus; comparatively, in “Botanomorphism and Temporality,” Elizabeth Crachiolo suggests that such symbolism renders the characters in Richard II vegetables themselves. The relationship between power and violence complicates these authors’ arguments. As such, the botanics in Titus Andronicus’s Act Two Scene Three demonstrate how prevailing bloodlines are contingent on bloodlust and loss. Richard II’s Act Three Scene Four illustrates how Richard, in particular, lacks power because of his inaction. Ultimately, through botanical imagery, the Shakespearean Greenworld (which lies outside societal norms and confines) and the repressed voices of figures lacking stately power—namely Aaron and Tamora in Titus Andronicus and the Gardener and Servants in Richard II—both plays suggest that violence is a gendered weapon necessary for establishing and maintaining power. In Titus Andronicus, anyone can wield this violence, whereas in Richard II, aristocrats are wholly culpable. 

For Crachiolo, Shakespeare’s plant imagery exposes the weak spots in Richard’s power. Equating the state to a garden and turning characters into plants (what she calls “botanomorphism”), Crachiolo claims Shakespeare “set up a situation in which various plantlike characters vie for the privileges of being deeply rooted in the land of England and growing vigorously in its garden” (274). Though Crachiolo elucidates humorous images of plant-presenting characters fighting each other, the point stands, as it situates King Richard’s power. As a symbol of the state and ruler of his realm, Richard is both the garden and the gardener; the characters’ “roots” are at his mercy. In Act 3 Scene 4, the gardener commands the servants: 

Go bind thou up yond dangling apricots, 

Which like unruly children make their sire 

Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight. 

Give some supportance to the bending twigs. (3.4.38-31)

The apricots are the tree’s constituents, weighing down their leader. “Even as a tree Richard is weak,” Crachiolo says, referencing the passage (273). The gardener and servants tend to these structural issues, suggesting that Richard failed to do the same. He let himself and the state bend, sway, and snap in the wind. If both the tree and the state embody Richard, the state and the tree become one. The state’s leaders are the twigs that cause growth; failing to trim and tend to these overgrowths, however, sacrifices support and perpetuates weakness in leadership. Richard’s tree-like embodiment represents his weakness, but also his inability to properly ground and govern his people. 

While Crachiolo relates kingship to plants and power in Richard II, Feerick discusses how the imagery exposes oppressive rule in Titus Andronicus, particularly through how Tamora’s pathetic fallacy accentuates Rome’s effective othering of her and Aaron. At the start of Act 2 Scene 3, the two escape to the woods; in this moment of pathetic fallacy, Tamora describes, through a lens of joy and contentment, a Shakespearean Green World outside Saturnitus’s kingdom (2.3.10-29) where “both Aaron and Tamora imagin[e] themselves as Romans” (Feerick 90). All too soon, however, Bassianus disrupts this magical space outside of social confines. Tamora reverts to an individual oppressed by the state as she laments, “The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean, / Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe” (2.3.94-5). For Tamora, Bassianus sours nature’s beauty; the bright imagery that overwhelmed her psyche moments before turns dark. An abundance of moss suffocates the trees—a symbol of the state themselves—and parasitic mistletoe anchors itself to the bark, hindering the tree’s ability to grow. Feerick writes that “[i]n this image, Tamora constructs the world” (91) as a social body in which Titus “seeks to consolidate Roman bonds” (90). Bassianus, a Roman with immense stately power and influence—someone whom this consolidation would benefit—imposes on and stifles this democratizing Green World. As Tamora’s perspective shifts from joy (expressed through the forest’s initial magnificence), to grief (shown later in her account of nature’s oppressive functions), she realizes she and Aaron live in a world where they cannot coexist with the Romans and are abruptly othered.

Both Feerick and Crachiolo highlight underprivileged voices expressing their thoughts on the plays’ authoritative figures—the oppressed speaking about the oppressors. Violence’s role in power underlies many of these dialogues. In Richard II, the gardener and servants expose, through their plant-oriented idiolect, how Richard’s ineptitude connects to his refusal of violence. The gardener adopts an authoritative role, telling the servants:  

like an executioner

Cut off the heads of too-fast-growing sprays

That look too lofty in our commonwealth…I will go root away

The noisome weeds that without profit suck

The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers. (3.4.28-39)

By demonstrating his ability to reign over his nursery, the gardener emphasizes Richard’s inability to reign over his kingdom; he commands his servants as a King would command an executioner and then stresses that he, too, will contribute to tending the gardens by weeding. However, the ineptitude the gardener alludes to extends past Richard’s distant approach to controlling and tending to the realm. The gardener discards diseased weeds that harm the potential for other, more beneficial growth, and, like executioners at the King’s behest, the servants behead foliage-bearing branches. As King, Richard does not properly weed—or rather kill—the people who crowded the state’s gardens and prevented growth within the kingdom. He was not attentive to the kingdom’s needs, which required violence. Such imagery, when applied to Crachiolo’s claim that equates characters to plants, suggests that the gardener, through simile, views Richard’s lack of violence as a crucial issue. Appropriately, Richard II lacks on-stage violence, bar Richard’s death, which reflects his negligence.

More overtly than in Richard II, violence lurks within Act Two Scene Three of Titus Andronicus through Aaron’s orchestration of murder; his actions disrupt traditional ideas of authority (wielded by aristocracy and government) but reinforce the necessity of violence for effective leadership. Aaron plots to frame the murder of Bassianus on Titus’s sons, Quintus and Martius. He forges a letter, signing it as the two brothers, which reads: 

Look for thy reward

Among the nettles at the elder tree

Which overshades the mouth of that same pit

Where we decreed to bury Bassianus. (2.3.271-4)

The letter, which validates Aaron’s claims and protects his liability, allows this scene to unfold as it does. The gold sits underneath the elder stately tree, within the stinging nettles. Whoever collects the gold, presumably who Quintus and Martius paid to kill Bassianus, will be stung. The state harms those who harm the state; as such, Aaron inserts a subtle statement within the letter’s botanical language, referring to the violence entrenched in Titus Andronicus’s circular revenge plot. However, Aaron also expresses that the pit where Quintus, Martius, and the deceased Bassianus lie sits within the tree’s shade. The pit is still within the tree’s jurisdiction; the state subordinates Quintus, Martius, and Bassianus. But in this odd Green World-esque place (which, though it has shifted for Tamora, remains as such for Aaron), Aaron is in command. He directs every motion and Quintus, Martius, and Bassianus sit in tree-projected darkness—just as Aaron’s skin is dark. Thus here, Aaron subverts tradition and rules with violence over those who previously ruled over him. Aaron’s operation reflects that while he believes violence is necessary for functioning kingdoms, he does not endorse the violence typical of Titus Andronicus. The instance of violence at the apex of Aaron’s plans—Bassianus’s murder—is very much outward and onstage as Demetrius and Chiron stab Bassianus, reflecting the more visible presence of violence in comparison to Richard II.

While the relationship between violence and power is present in both plays through botanical imagery, the characters calling attention to this relationship are equally important. By assigning lines to underprivileged voices, Shakespeare demonstrates how violence is explicitly gendered for subordinate groups. Just before raping Lavinia, Demetrius proclaims, “First, thrash the corn, then after burn the straw” (Titus Andronicus 2.3.123). As Demetrius compares Lavinia to corn, he explains that he and Chiron will first rape her (thrash) and then kill her (burn). Rendering Lavinia a vegetable with respect to Crachiolo’s argument, these men also render her an object to be consumed. The idea that her vegetative state transforms post-rape from corn to straw suggests that once raped, she is a hollow object—just straw or a shell with no substance. Power, in this sense, does not directly relate to politics but to gendered violence. Kaitlyn Regher and Cheryl Regher write: “Titus and not Lavinia is the victim of the crime, it is his suffering that is important” (29). Demetrius and Chiron use Lavinia to get to Titus; they gain power over him through this act of female-directed violence. Furthermore, Feerick explains that, later in the play, Lucius’s “use of the image of a vegetable body––a sheaf of corn—to transmit political vision is […] indicative of a large pattern in the play whereby natural forms are made to carry complex social valences” (87). For Demetrius and Chiron, Lavinia holds great potential to increase their power. By enacting such violence on Lavinia while also comparing her to corn, it is evident that Lavinia is not their intended prey; she simply serves as a proxy to the state. In this way, Shakespeare suggests that violence—gendered violence to be exact—is the only way to disturb a stagnant state. 

In Richard II, too, subordinated characters expose the prevalence of gendered violence, though the focus shifts to those in charge rather than the subjects and oppressed themselves. From one servant’s perspective, Shakespeare writes: 

When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,

Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up, 

Her fruit trees all unpruned, her hedges ruined, 

Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs. (3.4.43-6)

In using the garden as a metaphor for Richard’s state, the servant further personifies the state as a woman—a mother in particular. He likens a disorganized realm to a bedraggled, infertile woman. The weeds Richard failed to tend—to unroot from their nutrients and life source—do not just prohibit reproduction and growth within the state. Rather, they kill all existing life, particularly the flowers. Crachiolo writes, “Flowers are associated with women, young women in particular, and they are also applied to men who are weak or effeminate. Richard […] is botanomorphized as a flower” (Crachiolo 271-2). In this sense, through his inaction, Richard’s downfall is feminized, and peaks upon his murder, like a flower plucked and robbed of its life. As a flower, Richard is betrayed by the very weeds that he failed to cut—suffocated by their abundance. Shakespeare redirects responsibility for the failing state to those with roles in the monarchy rather than distributing it amongst all characters as in Titus Andronicus, exhibiting how Richard’s passivity induces gendered violence on both the feminized state and himself. 

Conversely, for those not subject to state-driven discrimination and oppression, gender identity is a non-issue. In Act 2 Scene 3, when Quintus first peers into the Bassianus-condemned pit, he exclaims:

What subtle hole is this, […] 

Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood

As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers? (Titus Andronicus 2.3.198-202)

For Quintus, blood on leaves equates to dew on flowers; while the leaves recall Richard’s kingdom/tree growth, blood-covered leaves represent a state where violence perpetuates further growth. The comparison of blood and dew furthers this metaphor, suggesting that just as dew helps flowers complete their metabolic processes, blood elicits a kingdom’s expansion. Thus, violence and bloodshed refresh and revitalize a kingdom. The leaves that Quintus mentions are separate from his identity; Shakespeare genders neither the flowers nor the briars. Violence is a mechanism for political growth—something to perpetuate power.

This phenomenon, wherein violence is fundamental to power, is also apparent in Richard II, though presented differently. In the scene preceding Richard’s deposition, he speaks down to Northumberland from a balcony, saying: 

Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons

Shall ill become the flower of England’s face, [...]

Her pastor’s grass with faithful English blood. (3.3.93)

Condemning Bolingbroke’s call for war, Richard predicts what will ensue. To get the crown, Bolingbroke must commit violent acts; to usurp is to destroy, and Bolingbroke’s war will sentence many men to death. Their blood will spill and water the garden of England—sprouting flowers that represent “her” transformation from an innocent figure to a violence-ridden one. Richard uses a similar image from Titus Andronicus, that of blood as dew on England’s grass. Although Richard represents anti-violence (at least on-stage), violence and bloodshed again become perpetrators of political growth or transformation. 

While Richard uses specific pronouns in this passage, personifying a feminine England and denoting the male identities of those who will fight, such gendered terms are not concerned with identity itself. Bolingbroke’s war, to Richard, is not an act of gendered violence directed towards a feminized England. Instead, such pronouns indicate Richard’s concern for the wider implications of war and violence. The people who fight in these wars happen to be men. He worries less about their identity as men and more about what they symbolize as fighters for the state and what their violent deaths imply—more about England’s “sons” than England herself. Ultimately, Richard indicates that peace is only achievable through violence—only after all this bloodshed will Bolingbroke be able to rule in a peaceful kingdom. 

The prevalence of plants in Titus Andronicus and Richard II exceeds the one-dimensional concepts of power and violence. In both plays, Shakespeare’s botanical imagery addresses structural power, violence as a result of or response to such power, and gendered violence as a means to transcend that power. In Titus Andronicus, the playwright accepts violence as a reaction to oppressive systems; Aaron—and even Demetrius and Chiron, though their actions are unjustifiable—must fight for his humanity. In Richard II, the gardeners blame exclusively the monarchical authority for the violence. From Titus Andronicus to Richard II, Shakespeare clarifies how power, and thus political systems and their leaders, incite violence, gendered or not. At what cost, he asks, does power cease to be worth such violence?

Works Cited

Crachiolo, Elizabeth. “Botanomorphism and Temporality: Imagining Humans as Plants in Two Shakespeare Plays.” Shakespeare’s Botanical Imagination, edited by Susan C. Staub, Amsterdam University Press, 2023, pp. 267–284. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023. 

Feerick, Jean. “Botanical Shakespeares: The Racial Logic of Plant Life in Titus Andronicus.” South Central Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 2009, pp. 82–102. JSTOR, Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Kaitlyn Regehr, and Cheryl Regehr. “Let Them Satisfy Thus Lust on Thee: Titus Andronicus As Window into Societal Views of Rape and Ptsd.” Traumatology, vol. 18, no. 2, 2012, pp. 27–34.,

Shakespeare, William. Richard the Second. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Steven Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 885-956. 

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Steven Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, W.W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 491-554.