Monday, 27 February 2017

Ophelia's Flowers

Shakespeare used flowers to symbolically illustrate his ideas. In the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, we are introduced to Ophelia. Hamlet has killed Ophelia's father, and she expresses her grief through the symbolism of flowers.
In her seemingly mad state of mind (Act IV, Scene V), Ophelia passed out various flowers, which indirectly communicated her intent to the King and court.
The key to the following passage is important not only for the deeper, symbolic meaning of the flowers, but their message to the recipients:
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray,
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-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."
Here are the meanings of Ophelia's flowers:
Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis): "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance," a reminder to remember and be faithful. Ophelia gave rosemary to her brother, Laretes, to remind him to remember what happened to their father and discover who killed him.
Pansy (Viola tricolor): "And there is pansies, that's for thoughts," a symbol of thoughtfulness and faithfulness. Given to Laretes, referring back to his earlier thoughts on Hamlet's love for Ophelia.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): "There's fennel for you," a symbol of flattery. This Ophelia gave to Claudius as an emblem of the flattery and deceit shown to politicians.
Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris): "... and columbines," representing folly, forsaken lovers and adultery. She gave this symbol of ingratitude and infidelity in love to the king.
Rue (Ruta graveolens): "There's rue for you," a bitter herb that symbolizes sorrow, repentance, adultery and everlasting suffering. Gertrude, the queen receives some, and Ophelia takes some for herself.
English Daisy (Bellis perenis): "There's a daisy," symbolizing innocence. Here, the daisy represents the loss of innocence, for Ophelia puts it back.
Sweet Violet (Viola odorata): "I would give you some violets," a symbol of faithfulness and fidelity, and connected to death. Ophelia addresses the king and queen's faithfulness and integrity with this flower.
We can better appreciate Ophelia's courage and story when we see how important flower symbolism is in the play.
References include Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers and Jessica Kerr's Shakespeare's Flowers.
[Image: Ophelia (1889) by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). This work is in the public domain.]

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