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The Dirt

Shakespeare on pruning

Hamlet Uncut

Erik Draper’s article on fixing pruning mistakes (“Oh, No! Now What?,” Fine Gardening #137, Jan/Feb 2011,p. 44) addresses the anxiety that gardeners have always felt about cutting off their plants’ branches. It is a little-known fact that in the original version of Hamlet, William Shakespeare has his main character ruminate on the fear of an unforeseen and irreversible outcome that pruning shrubs and trees often instills in gardeners. Although scholars still debate about why it was changed, here is the Act III soliloquy of Hamlet the way the Bard intended it:

[Enter HAMLET, with Felcos]
To prune, or not to prune: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous bushes,
Or to take loppers to a sea of branches,
And by cutting shape them? To cut: to prune;
Lop off; and by a cut to say we end
The crossed branches and the wayward growth
That shrubs are heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To cut, to prune;
To prune: perchance to kill: ay, there’s the rub;
For in those cuts of wood what branches may fall
When we have chopped off the wrong limb,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes a calamity of so many shrubs;
For who would bear the whips and stems of yew,
The lilac’s spread, the crape myrtle’s floppiness,
The pine’s undisguised spread, the rose’s disease,
The invasiveness of privet and the space
That holly turned into a hedge takes,
When he himself might his border shape
With sharpened pruner? Who would brambles bear,
To cringe and plant under an ugly shrub,
But that the dread of some uglier shrub,
The lopsided woody from whose shape
No beauty returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those shrubs we have
Than shape them to something we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native urge to pruning
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of pruning.

View Comments


  1. KariLonning 01/03/2011

    A truly hort-nerd bit of writing ... Loved it.

  2. ddonabella 01/04/2011

    outstanding...love Shakespeare and you certainly captured the garden version...it's a keeper

  3. 77355 01/04/2011

    Ah, I feel his angst and yet did overcome for the greater glory of mine arbors ... ;-D !

  4. the country gardener 01/13/2011

    Steve, I am blown away. This is incredibly well done. Bravo!

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