Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

On a Bank of Rue; or Material Ecofeminist Inquiry and the Garden of Richard II

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

On a Bank of Rue; or Material Ecofeminist Inquiry and the Garden of Richard II

Article excerpt

This essay builds on the "material turn" that has been the focus of much recent feminist and ecofeminist work, which emphasizes the joint "materiality of the human body and the natural world," and joins it with food studies as a way to better understand gender and the garden scene in Shakespeare's Richard II. (1) With a focus on intersecting material practices related to the female body, animals, and plants, such a turn brings together the work of feminist and ecofeminist scholars of the early modern period, even as it addresses concerns of import to food studies. As we have shown elsewhere, these concerns are hardly mutually exclusive, as evidenced in our recent edited collection of ecofeminist readings around the question of the materiality of the natural world as it relates to early modern texts, including cookery books. (2) And, as Joan Fitzpatrick writes in Food in Shakespeare, exercise and diet, not just walking in the woods or gathering plants from the garden, were also understood in the early modern period in England as inherently material practices and experienced in such ways that remind us that "early moderns had a materialist view of the body and mind." (3)

In the interest not only of generating dialogue between ecofeminist and food studies scholars, but also of theorizing that conversation through the dialogue that existed in the early modern era, we turn to Shakespeare, to the garden scene in Richard II. This scene, frequently the subject of scholarly interrogation, has been discussed almost exclusively as metaphor, but we would like to resist this metaphorization and instead explore a reading of the garden in the play that focuses on material practice and thus the gendered implications of the garden where the scene takes place and the plants in it. Doing so allows us to re-read the Queen's role in the play in the context of questions that we see as uniting these different areas of inquiry. In this scene, the Gardener brings the metaphor of the garden back to the material, to the plants and practices in the garden as he finds fault with Richard for not treating his kingdom as a garden. For example, when the Gardener says, "O, what pity is it / That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land / As we this garden?" (3.4.56-58), he calls to our attention not the fact that Richard (or anyone else for that matter) neglected imagining England in metaphoric terms as a garden but rather that Richard would have ruled the kingdom better had he taken a cue from those who work outside with the land. (4) It is in the work with the land, and subsequently in the kitchen or stillroom in the making of medicine, that food studies, too, may become part of the "material turn" but only with the recognition that the material and the cultural are ultimately inextricable.

Previous criticism, however ecological or feminist in intent, has followed the scene's commentary away from material nature and women's bodies toward a metaphorical rendition of the body politic. Feminist scholars have tended to see Queen Isabel as possessing importance typically only as she exists as yet another early modern "mirror" of Elizabeth or other notable historical woman or extension of Richard's masculinity or potential redemption; she is, they claim, a "pathetic melancholy spectator of her husband's downfall," characterized more by her absence than her presence, (5) or a type of biblical Ruth. (6) Even when feminist scholars focus on the materiality of the plants within this garden, the result is a claim about their symbolism related to the body politic, as is the case when Helen Ostovich cites John Gerard's Herball and some of the uses of rue, but concludes that Isabel's connection to rue in the play serves merely to "inspir[e] new life" in her husband and king, Richard. (7) And in a recent seemingly ecocritical reading of this scene, the nonhuman world of plants in the garden, even the garden itself, serves again merely as a trope, an "ecological microcosm" that reinscribes the concerns of the body politic. …

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