A Level English: Mystery and Meaning behind Ophelia’s Flower-Giving

The flower, though seemingly unpretentious, has great significance. It has, for centuries, popped up in literature and art, been seen in paintings, read in poetry, and heard in plays. What makes the humble flower so powerful is the hidden meanings and symbols often attached to it. It is said that historically, Marigolds symbolized grief, and Rosemary symbolises remembrance. It seems there is a whole ‘Secret Language of Flowers’ many of us haven’t even heard of!

Those of you who have read or studied art and literature might be thinking now of the different instances when you have encountered the mention of flowers in the different works you have studied. I know that for all those A-Levels students out there studying Hamlet, this little passage will almost definitely come to mind:

Ophelia: 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. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.”

If we adopt the view of the scholars and literature experts who believe that there is a [hidden] meaning attached to the flowers she hands out (whether this be Shakespeare’s devise or her own) the big question here would be “what do those different flowers and herbs symbolise?”

There are two main issues with this question, however. The first of these is the fact that in the Victorian Era, the ‘language and poetry of flowers’ became greatly fashionable. This is not a bad thing at all (who can resist flowers?) but some analysts have argued that because in the Victorian Era the ‘language of flowers’ really reached its peak of popularity, this ‘flower-mania’ might have consequently lead editors to see, for example, the flowers that Ophelia gives out to be much more significant in their meaning and symbolism than the Elizabethan audience would originally have seen them as being. This is a concern voiced by Lever (1952) who “is adamant that there is no symbolic meaning for the Elizabethan audience”. Whilst it is contestable as to whether there would be no symbolic meaning conveyed to the Elizabethan audience whatsoever, certainly, the fact that flower symbolism is often relative encourages us to conduct further research before asserting that ‘this particular flower has this particular meaning’.

Funnily enough, a few days ago, whilst out with a friend, upon seeing a bouquet of tulips, she told me that she disliked them because they made her sad- they were usually used for funerals in her country. I found this really surprising because in other countries, such as Sweden, tulips are usually used at Easter (it has been estimated by Jordbruksverket that 152 million Tulips were bought in 2011 in Sweden) Tulips, it seems, symbolise different things for different people, in different contexts, and at different times, and this is true for other flowers too.

The second issue is the possibility that the original meanings and symbols of flowers in the Elizabethan era might have been lost, because many were based on ‘popular beliefs’ rather than standard norms. Even if this is true, however, because these meanings are now supposedly ‘lost’, there is no way to prove they existed in the first place.

Interestingly, however, some scholars have suggested that a clue to the meanings attached to the flowers Ophelia gives out in Act 4 Scene 5 may be found in a 1584 poem, possibly by William Hunnis, called A Nosegay Always Sweet. Here is an excerpt: (It is a really lovely poem, so if you want to read it in its complete form, find it at the bottom of this article)

Lavender is for lovers true,

Rosemary is for remembrance

Sage is for sustenance,

Fennel is for flatterers,

Violet is for faithfulness

Thyme is to try me,

Roses are to rule me

Gillyflowers are for gentleness,

Carnations are for graciousness,

Marigolds are for marriage,

Pennyroyal is to print your love

Cowslips are for counsel,

Flowers have decorated our past, and they continue to do so in the present, in good times and sad ones. Though they may seem modest and sweet, these pretty plants have enormous mystery, great power, and a colourful history, one we have yet to fully unravel. While their meanings are sometimes surprising, they can also be relative, so the next time you receive a Marigold, don’t immediately think it’s a bad sign (You’ve just read in the poem above that it can also symbolise marriage!). On the other hand, those roses could have a darker message than you think…

Have you heard of any other flowers or plants having messages or symbols? Tell me what you think by commenting below!

Further Reading:

Mandy Kirby’s Language of Flowers: a Miscellany for some great reading on the meanings of flowers and the history of those meanings

Jack Goody, in The Culture of Flowers, gives a really interesting discussion of the symbolism of Ophelia’s flowers, you can find it from pg. 180.

From pg. 246 in The Nordic Storyteller: Essays in Honour of Niels Ingwersen, edited by Susan Brantly and Thomas A. DuBois, you can find another really interesting discussion on the significance of Ophelia’s distribution of flowers to Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, and herself.

Growing and Using Herbs and Spices, by Milo Miloradovich, has some great information on the early history of the use and meanings of certain herbs and spices.

A Nosegay Always Sweet

 A nosegay, lacking flowers fresh,

To you now I do send;

Desiring you to look thereon,

When that you may intend:

For flowers fresh begin to fade,

And Boreas in the field

Even with his hard congealed frost

No better flowers doth yield.


But if that winter could have sprung

A sweeter flower than this,

I would have sent it presently

To you withouten miss:

Accept this then as time doth serve,

Be thankful for the same,

Despise it not, but keep it well,

And mark each flower his name.


Lavender is for lovers true,

Which evermore be fain,

Desiring always for to have

Some pleasure for their pain;

And when that they obtained have

The love that they require,

Then have they all their perfect joy,

And quenched is the fire.


Rosemary is for remembrance

Between us day and night;

Wishing that I might always have

You present in my sight.

And when I cannot have

As I have said before,

Then Cupid with his deadly dart

Doth wound my heart full sore.


Sage is for sustenance,

That should man’s life sustain;

For I do still lie languishing

Continually in pain,

And shall do still until I die,

except thou favour show:

My pain and all my grievous smart

Full well you do it know.


Fennel is for flatterers,

An evil thing it is sure:

But I have always meant truly,

With constant heart most pure;

And will continue in the same

As long as life doth last,

Still hoping for a joyful day

When all our pains be past.


Violet is for faithfulness

Which in me shall abide;

Hoping likewise that from your heart

You will not let it slide;

And will continue in the same

As you have now begun,

And then for ever to abide,

Then you my heart have won.


Thyme is to try me,

As each be tried must,

Letting you know while life doth last

I will not be unjust;

And if I should I would to God

To hell my soul should bear,

And eke also that Beelzebub

With teeth he should me tear.


Roses are to rule me

With reason as you will,

For to be still obedient

Your mind for to fulfil;

And thereto will not disagree

In nothing that you say,

But will content your mind truly

In all things that I may.


Gillyflowers are for gentleness,

Which in me shall remain,

Hoping that no sedition shall

Depart our hearts in twain.

As soon the sun shall lose his course,

The moon against her kind

Shall have no light, if that I do

Once put you from my mind.


Carnations are for graciousness,

Mark that now by the way,

Have no regard to flatterers,

Nor pass not what they say:

For they will come with lying tales

Your ears for to fulfil:

In any case do you consent

Nothing unto their will.


Marigolds are for marriage,

That would our minds suffice,

Lest that suspicion of us twain

By any means should rise:

As for my part, I do not care,

Myself I will still use

That all the women of the world

For you I will refuse.


Pennyroyal is to print your love

So deep within my heart,

That when you look this nosegay on

My pain you may impart;

And when that you have read the same,

Consider well my woe,

Think ye then how to recompense

Even him that loves you so.


Cowslips are for counsel,

For secrets us between,

That none but you and I alone

Should know the thing we mean:

And if you will thus wisely do,

As I think to be best,

Then have you surely won the field

And set my heart at rest.


I pray you keep this nosegay well,

And set by it some store:

And thus farewell! the gods thee guide

Both now and evermore!

Not as the common sort do use,

To set it in your breast,

That when the smell is gone away,

On ground he takes his rest

From: Cruikshank, R & Cruikshank, G. (ed.) (1834) Universal Songster: Or, Museum of Mirth: Forming the Most Complete, Extensive, and Valuable Collection of Ancient and Modern Songs in the English Language, with a Copious and Classified Index, Ed. Volume 1. London: Jones and Company. pp. 182-3.




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