The fair Ophelia! — Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.
* Hamlet, scene i
How many of us have struggled for words when we're desperately in love with someone, only to produce an inadequate mumble? William Shakespeare was so familiar with this dilemma that in ninety percent of his plays he carefully chose flowers to illustrate humans emotions and experiences. The people who lived in the Elizabethan era, gardened and worked with the earth for both survival and pleasure. People started to learn the "language of flowers" also known as Florigraphy. Each flower had its own folklore, magical qualities and personality. Shakespeare was an avid gardener and his love for flowers ended up becoming a reoccurring theme in his work. I am going to show how Shakespeare used flowers in one speech from the play "Hamlet" spoken by the character, "Ophelia."
There are so many speeches of Shakespeare to admire and love, but Ophelia's speech is special for me. In high school, I was chosen to act Ophelia's "Flower Garland" speech for a Shakespeare showcase. I was drawn most to Ophelia because of how much I identified with her at the time.
I'm not going to get into details about "Hamlet" as my focus is on Ophelia. For those who have not read or seen a production of "Hamlet," Ill tell you a little bit about Ophelia and how brilliantly Shakespeare wrote about flowers. Ophelia is a fragile and immature teenager, desperately in love with the prince of Denmark, Hamlet. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet professes his love for Ophelia and speaks about a possible future together. Ophelia's brother and father are very wary of Hamlet and beg her to stay away from him. Hamlet's father is murdered by his uncle who ends up marrying Hamlet's mother. Obviously, this took an enormous toll on Hamlet which is illustrated in the famous speech, "To be or not to be..." Hamlet now mad with revenge and hatred has no capacity to love Ophelia anymore. He tells Ophelia that he never loved her and that he wants nothing more to do with her. Ophelia, becomes overwhelmed with depression and begins to emotionally unravel. Hamlet later ends up murdering Ophelia's father which leads to Ophelia to eventual madness.
Ophelia wanders into Hamlet's castle, singing strange songs to herself about a young girl who loses her virginity and death. She looks wild and unkempt, with flowers and herbs weaved into her hair and clothes. She stops before Hamlet, his parents and her brother and starts to speak;
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts," said Ophelia to her brother Laertes. "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. O, 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."As I mentioned before, Shakespeare knew exactly what he wanted to portray when he wrote about specific flowers. Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries had a fascination with early civilizations, especially the "Golden Age of Greece" and incorporated their myths for themselves. In Ophelia's speech, most of the flowers are based upon the Greek myths and stories. Ophelia starts off with "rosemary for "remembrance". Greek students would wear wreaths of rosemary as they believed it helped them with memorizing their studies. In Shakespeare's time, rosemary developed new meanings and associations. If a man couldn't smell the fragrance of rosemary, he was known for never being able to love a woman properly. If a home had a rosemary bush in the front yard it said to everyone that the woman was the head of the household. It was also believed to ward off certain types of illness. If you slept with a sprig of rosemary beneath your pillow, it would help to bring sweet dreams. Ophelia sadly beseeches Hamlet to remember.
Pansies are for thoughts, Ophelia says. The word "Pansy" was originally a French word, "Pensée," literally meaning thought. Pansies back then were much smaller and grew all over the fields as wild flowers. They came to have the nickname, "Heartsease" because it was believed that pansies could heal a broken heart and to bring back joy. Shakespeare also used the Pansy in one of his other plays, "A Midsummers Night's Dream" for a very different purpose. The King of the Fairies, Oberon, had his servant Puck, wipe the juice of the pansy wiped on his Fairy Queen Titania as she slept. They were in a tiff, and Oberon wanted the upper hand over Titania. When someone had pansy juice on them while sleeping they would wake up and fall in love with the first thing they saw. Titania wakes up and falls in love with a man who's been changed into a donkey. Not being one of the tragedies that Shakespeare wrote, "A Midsummers Night's Dream" is one of those plays where all's well that ends well. So Pansies also had an aphrodisiacal power.
Fennel seeds were eaten by the Greek soldiers who were starving at wartime. Fennel were used to appease the hunger, but they never worked or helped the way people wanted them too. Fennel became known as the "false flower." Ophelia uses Fennel to show how she was falsely loved and hurt by Hamlet.
Columbine symbolized ingratitude and became known as "the thankless flower." Again, Ophelia is speaking to Hamlet of his cruelty and lack of any type of appreciation for her.
The word "Rue" itself came from the Greek word, "ruta", meaning repentance. The Greeks had many stories about the flower rue didn't always represent repentance. Rue was eaten for strength and protection in battles. The English were the one's who fully used the flower rue to symbolize repentance. A good churchgoer after sunday confession was supposed to have feelings of remorse and sorrow for whatever sin they had committed. Rue was also known as the "Herb of Grace o' Sundays." Ophelia wished for repentance upon Hamlet who never showed any degree of repentance.
The flower "daisy" was originally called daeges eage, meaning "day's eyes". Daisies the flower unfurls during the day and then closes up at night time. The qualities for daisies were daisies were innocence and purity. Ophelia carried a bouquet of daisies with her throughout the play.
And finally Ophelia speaks of the Violet flower. Violets bloom early in spring and then fade away. The English would forever connect violets with the early death of a person.Hamlet told Ophelia once that violets had a sweet scent that never lasted and faded away too quickly.
After Ophelia finishes her speech, she is never to be seen alive again. Hamlet's mother who loved Ophelia as a daughter tells Hamlet of her death;
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 crow-flowers, 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 pendent 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, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
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,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
So, do you speak the language of flowers as Shakespeare knew how to? And if so, what do they say to you?