Flowers and fancies in Shakespeare

Reading Time: 9 minutes We all know if we ask for symbols of love, the rose is high up the list. Floriography – studying.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

We all know if we ask for symbols of love, the rose is high up the list.

Floriography – studying the meaning of flowers – has more or less dropped out of English custom. We might occasionally hear that lilies are better for funerals, but most of us don’t attach much symbolic meaning when our loved ones show up with a bouquet.

Pre-twentieth century though it’s a different story. Victorians wrote whole handbooks on the meanings of flowers and dedicated time to deciphering the hidden messages of a buttonhole. Flowers in paintings back to the medieval period were also loaded with symbolism.

Teaching Hamlet, I spend quite a lot of time deconstructing the various representations of Ophelia in the text and in the art, music, poetry and novels inspired by her character. The scene where she has seemingly gone mad and delivers bunches of flowers to her onlookers is particularly interesting. Here it is:

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. 
 Pray you, love, remember.
 And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts …
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.
– Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.
There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, 
But they withered all when my father died.”

– Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

While Shakespeare doesn’t include the stage directions dictating to whom Ophelia gives her flowers, she’s onstage with Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes.


There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember.

Ophelia describes it as being “for remembrance”. In ancient Greece students wore garlands to aid  their memories (apparently recently scientifically proven, leading to an increase in rosemary sales during exams this year! ). Its ancient association with Venus links it with love; the word’s etymology is of the Latin “ros” and “marinus” – dew of the sea, connecting it with Venus who was born from sea foam. A Christian development linked the herb to Mary, suggesting she spread her cloak over a rosemary bush, turning the flowers blue.

The association with the virgin Mary perhaps explains further its association with warding off evil, and attracting good fortune – another reason why it was present at weddings, often carried by bridesmaids, and funerals, noted by 17th century poet Robert Herrick who wrote “Grow it for two ends, it matters not at all, be it for my bridal or burial.”

As an evergreen, it’s also linked to constancy. Shakespeare also uses it in Romeo and Juliet:

Nurse: “Doth not rosemary and Romeo begin both with a letter?” (Act II scene iv)

Its funereal symbolism is also linked to memory and scent, the hope that the loved one won’t be forgotten.

And in Juliet’s funeral wreath:

Friar: “Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse [corpse]; and, as the custom is,
In all her best array bear her to church” (Act IV, Scene v)

In Hamlet, the rosemary is traditionally assigned to an imaginary Hamlet – sometimes to Laertes on the assumption that Ophelia is handing him the herb mistaking him, in her madness, for Hamlet. Its symbolic meanings in this context are two-fold, drawing on the funereal associations for Laertes, asking him to remember his father whose death has been recently revealed, as well as foreshadowing Ophelia’s imminent death. For the imaginary Hamlet, rosemary is the flower for the wedding she never had and a plea to be remembered in life, where he has cast her aside.


 And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts

“Pansy” comes from the French “pensée” meaning “thoughts”. The flower symbolises meditation, and grief. It’s also been known as “heartsease” (its heart-shaped petals thought to heal a broken heart) or “love-in-idleness”, both meanings inciting the recipient to think of the giver fondly, after a parting, but not with anguish.

In Renaissance paintings, the flower was associated with the passion of Christ because of its five petals which were used as an allusion to Christ’s five wounds on the cross. Its three petals were associated with the holy trinity.

Traditionally, Ophelia gives the pansy to Laertes, a sweet gesture implying forgiveness and that he should think of her fondly. There is further foreshadowing of her death though the grief could also be for her madness, and the way that she has been treated by Hamlet and the court.  Arguably this could also go to the imaginary Hamlet, and be interpreted as a sign of her forgiveness for his behaviour.

Elsewhere, Shakespeare uses the pansy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; medieval lore used the pansy in love potions, and it’s the extract of pansy that Oberon and Puck use to make Titania fall in love with Bottom.


There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

The floriographic meaning is associated with flattery and deceit. Traditional staging has Ophelia give this to Claudius to highlight his manipulation of the court. In the middle ages fennel was used as an appetite suppressant, helping fasting pilgrims keep their vows. This eventually transformed into fennel becoming a symbol of something that appears to give sustenance but in fact gives none. Considering Claudius, this could represent the way in which he appears regal and powerful, and loving of Gertrude, but is hiding his murderous ascent to power – he is the thing that is “rotten in the state of Denmark”.

Etymologically, the word fennel might be influenced by “fenuculum”, from the Latin meaning “produce”, sharing a word stem with “fecund”, which would also suit Claudius’s sexual motives for murdering his brother.


There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

The second flower given traditionally to Claudius (the lack of additional pronoun suggests fennel and columbine are given to the same person).

Traditionally its meaning is “ingratitude”. However, in Renaissance paintings it was more associated with the sorrow of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost. In this reading, it might speak to the tragedy befalling Denmark as a result of Claudius’ actions. An interesting alternative would be to give both these – fennel and columbine – to Gertrude, thereby expressing sorrow at her sexual indiscretion and deception of the court and, possibly, her husband.

Contemporaries of Shakespeare use it to mean ingratitude. George Chapman writes “What’s that – a Columbine? No, that thankless flower grows not in my garden” while William Browne wrote “The Columbine is tawny taken, is thus ascribed to such as are forsaken.”

Its petals have a range of interpretations – eagle’s talons, the nectaries as heads of doves – but the one most relevant to Hamlet would likely be that the nectaries resemble horns and therefore the flower takes on an additional symbolism of faithless love, suited to Claudius’ relationship with Gertrude.

In giving Claudius the fennel and columbine, Ophelia is openly accusing him of adultery, fornication, uncontrollable faithless sexuality and deception of the entire court. In just two flower stems!


There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.
We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays.
– Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.

Most familiar to modern readers from The Hunger Games, the word for the plant is of uncertain origin but its bitter taste led to puns on rue, from the Old English “hreow” meaning “sorrow or repentance.”

Rue is a bitter plant, but with medicinal qualities. It’s a sign of repentance in folklore – the story is that if a wearer goes to church on Sunday and dips rue in the holy water, blessing themselves with it, they will obtain grace.

Elizabethans carried it to ward off plague and witchcraft, possibly also because of its bitterness, and it was strewn on floors to repel insects. The line “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.” suggests that the rue is given to Gertrude, which would be a comment on her faithlessness. Yet being able to wash her sins away by bathing the rue might also be symbolic of forgiveness. While Hamlet is unable to forgive his mother for her sins in marrying Claudius so soon after Old Hamlet’s death, and his anger at her sexual appetite fuels him for much of the play, Ophelia perhaps is more sympathetic to the feelings of love and longing that Gertrude (in a sympathetic reading of the play) might be experiencing.

That line also provides some speculation that Ophelia might have been pregnant because she tells Gertrude “you must wear your rue with a difference”. In large doses, rue is toxic and was used either to speed up labour or to abort an unwanted child. In this theory, there’s a further reason for Ophelia’s suicide, but I’m not sure it stands up in the play as a whole. However, both women have something to regret about their relationships.


There’s a daisy.

Etymologically this has come from a blend of “day’s eye” (dæges eage in Old English) because it opens at dawn and closes at dusk. Chaucer calls it the “eye of the day”. The Latin botanical name, bellis may come from bellus, Latin for “pretty”, and perennis meaning “everlasting”.

It’s unclear who this flower’s aimed at, and in many productions Ophelia doesn’t give it out because nobody in the court is associated with the innocence that daisies symbolise.


I would give you some violets,
But they withered all when my father died.

Extremely well-liked in the era. Botanist John Gerard wrote they were “delighfull to look on and pleasant to smel…the greatest ornament of all, chiefest beauty and most excellent grace” while Francis Bacon said in his Essay of Gardening that “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell is the violet.”

Like most flowers, there’s double meanings involved, and the violet is also associated with melancholy and early death – perhaps because of its strong scent being linked with memory, much like the rosemary. They also appear early Spring but fade quickly, and so are “apt emblems of those who enjoyed the bright springtide of life and no more.” (Ellacombe, The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare). In the Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare uses the violet as a story of the underworld, one of the flowers Persephone gathers as she’s kidnapped into hades.

Violets are perhaps the most positive flower Ophelia wants to offer, being also a symbol of constancy and fidelity. A contemporary poem included the lines:

“Violet is for faithfulness
Which in me shall abide

Ophelia has no violets to give. Fidelity has disappeared from the court; she’s mourning the early – unexpected – death of her father as well as acknowledging the ways that the Court is sliding into corruption.

 By the way, according to floriography, sending a yellow carnation meant “you have disappointed me” and hydrangea symbolise heartlessness. Best stick to red roses.



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