Of love and flowers and...Hamlet?

Shakespeare mentioned over 50 different kinds of flowers, plants, and herbs in his works. They are woven into everything from love stories like Romeo and Juliet to tragedies like Hamlet, where Ophelia drowns herself surrounded by garlands of wildflowers.

As I started work on this February’s newsletter, I thought I’d be directing my efforts toward the origins of flowers in love stories or maybe some research into the earliest gifts of flowers as symbols of adoration. But, somehow I came upon Hamlet. Hmm– definitely not where I thought this piece was going. After a couple of attempts to re-direct my work towards a “fluffier” story, I realized that there may be something very beautiful and very pertinent to the political world in which find ourselves these days.

Shakespeare writes:

“There with fantastic garlands did she come of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples…”

The scene is beautifully set. A willow, a brook, the reflection of leaves in the “glassy stream.” It doesn’t seem to me like the way a “mad” woman would choose to end things. And while some suggest she was driven mad by her love for Hamlet, others say she lost herself because she’d lost her voice. Was she trapped in a decision-less existence? Were the expectations of her father, her brother, and Hamlet too much? Was she rebelling against the patriarchy? I'd like to think so. 

John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia, 1894.

Her father (Pelonius), her brother (Laertes), and her love (Hamlet) had all treated her poorly. And, Ophelia had used flowers to send them messages before. After the death of her father, Ophelia shares different flowers with members of the court (Act 4, sc. 5): 

"There's rosemary for you, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts."
She continues, "There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. You must wear your rue with difference. There's daisy. I would give you violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end."

These flowers were symbols for behaviors Ophelia is addressing in the members of the court. And- if she was "with it" enough to address each of their ills with an appropriately-matched flower, how crazy could she have been? 

These matches have been suggested:

  • Rosemary could have been for Hamlet (posthumously) or for Laertes, for remembering Ophelia
  • Pansies have been suggested to be symbols for memories and faithfulness. They were also placed on graves. She may be sending Laertes a message with this gift.
  • Fennel is said to have symbolized flattery and adultery.
  • Columbines were for ingratitude, adultery, faithlessness, or deceived lovers. (The fennel and columbine may have been for Gertrude, she had been unfaithful. And/or they may have been for Claudius because he committed adultery with Gertrude. )
  • Rue is a symbol for regret and repentance and sorrow. It was also representative of adultery. "Ruta graveolens, commonly known as rue, common rue, or herb-of-grace, is a species of Ruta that is grown as an ornamental plant and as an herb. It is native to the Balkan Peninsula" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruta_graveolens).
  • Daisies were a symbol of innocence. (Perhaps Ophelia is giving it back to the court or suggesting they have none)
  • Violets stood for faithfulness- something that had been lost in Elsinore. 

In Hamlet, Ophelia is often praised for her beauty. I don’t buy that she is fragile because of her beauty or that she would have preferred to live a life of security without being able to direct her future. Here, Gertrude explains to Laertes the scene of Ophelia's death:


Drowned? Oh, where?


There is a willow grows aslant a brook that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. There with fantastic garlands did she come of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke, when down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like a while they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued unto that element.
But long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.

I enjoyed pulling together this article, but I couldn't have done it without some help. I'd like to thank Steve Reed, English Department Chair at Northwood School in Lake Placid, New York for reaffirming my direction with these notes and for helping me track down important scenes and references to flowers in Hamlet. I also need to thank Jim Norton, English faculty at Burke Mountain Academy, for helping me with some specific questions about Hamlet. Thank you Reno and Jim!

There are so many different ways to interpret Shakespeare's messages. I hope this post has helped you re-connect with the text. I admit, embarrassingly, that I hadn't opened it since high school. Please share your thoughts and reflections or favorite "flower" quotes from Shakespeare in the comments below. Tis the season!