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Shakespeare’s Flowers


When William Shakespeare wrote of love and despair he often turned to the language of flowers to help him.

Shakespeare’s flowers lay scattered throughout some of his most notable works and they are contained in some of his most remembered lines. In Elizabethan times flowers and herbs carried with them symbolic meaning. They were used to convey messages and Shakespeare was skilled in weaving them into his writing. He used the language of flowers to convey subtle or double meaning to the lines written. This suggests that in this time people who were attending the plays also understood this language of flowers.

Shakespeare's Flowers

Shakespeare used the Rose to symbolize beauty.

Shakespeare’s flowers from Hamlet.

In Hamlet Act 4 when Ophelia appears to have gone mad and hands out flowers, she is sending clear messages to those around her.

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

Ophelia gives a strong message to the King and Queen and the court when she gives out certain flowers and holds back others. Rosemary was a much valued herb in Elizabethan times. It is an evergreen plant with a strong pervasive smell. It was used to cook with and to strew on the floor. The smell lingering in the memory and and for this reason such the plant is associated remembrance and played a part in funerals. Because of its long lasting scent, it also contains the message of constancy and is a plant associated with weddings.


Likewise Ophelia hands out pansies, again a flower associated with memory and keeping people in our thoughts.
Another strong smelling, powerful but bitter plant is Rue. It was associated with sorrow and regret. The expression ‘you’ll rue the day’ comes from this, meaning you will regret the day you did something. When Ophelia says, ‘there’s rue for you and rue for me’ she is meaning maybe they should all regret their actions.
Columbine or Granny’s Bonnet is a common cottage garden plant, self seeding with abandonment. It was sometimes associated with ingratitude. Fennel was for flatterers, easy words not truly meant. So how about that for a punch on the nose nose-gay?
The Daisy, meaning purity Ophelia did not hand out but kept it for herself and the Violets, what of the violets?
Sweet violets mean faithfulness and fidelity but Ophelia has none to give out, they all died when her father died. The court, the King and Queen are not to be honoured with Violets.
It is such a clever speech, so carefully written, Shakespeare’s flowers capture a story within a story in a way that words alone cannot do.
Then when Ophelia drowns, Violets appear again, spoken by her brother Laertes.

“Lay her i’ the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.”

Hamlet Act V Scene I Lines 238-242

Sweet Violets

Shakespeare’s flowers from Romeo and Juliet.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene ii Lines 45-47

What was Shakespeare trying to tell us in when he has Juliet say these lines? Juliet is standing on the balcony in the Italian city of Verona and she is distraught to discover that Romeo, whom she loves is a member of the Montague family. The Montague family are the arch enemies of her own family. These lines have Juliet questioning, so what if Romeo is a Montague, it is just a name. His name does not in itself make him a bad person. Call him something else and see the wonderful man he is. So a rose may be called a Marigold, it would still smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet

Juliet’s balcony in Verona Italy.

And then Shakespeare cannot resist adding in some more Rosemary.

“Doth not rosemary and Romeo begin both with a letter?”

– Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 4
And then Juliet has died and Rosemary is included in the wreath on which she lays her head.

“Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse”

– Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene 5

Shakespeare’s flowers in the Sonnets.

Not sure that this is the most flattering of love sonnets but Shakespeare uses roses to tell us that his mistress is not as lovely as a rose etc but despite this he loves her very much.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Sonnet 130