Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
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 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
“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
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.
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
“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.