Classics · Shakespeare

A Garden of Hidden Meaning: Ophelia’s Flowers

Much has been made of Ophelia’s scene with the flowers in Act IV of Hamlet. Since the scene doesn’t include any actual stage directions, it’s all up to interpretation who she gives the flowers to and why. However, I couldn’t help noticing that no matter who gets the rue and who gets the columbines, all the flowers speak to greater themes explored by the play as well as the individual characters’ faults.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

There’s so much about memory and remembrance in Hamlet. Whether she gives this flower to her brother Laertes, or to an invisible Hamlet who is only there in her imagination, there is so much for Ophelia to remember. Obviously, there’s her father, who was killed by Hamlet. There’s also Hamlet himself and the days when he made her believe he loved her. “Ah, woe is me!” she cried when he rejected her, “To have seen what I have seen, see what I see”. Hamlet, as well, mourns for his father long after his mother and uncle start pushing him to move on with life. Meanwhile, the queen has forgotten her first husband too quickly. Lack of remembrance is condemned.

And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.

The pansies are usually interpreted as going to Laertes, which makes sense: both his and Ophelia’s thoughts are with their deceased father. The play as a whole puts its characters’ conflicted thoughts to the forefront with long, contemplative soliloquies such as the famous “to be or not to be?” It explores the emotions of its main characters and the complexities of the human mind in great depth, devoting far more time to this than to advancing the plot directly.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

Again, there’s a standard interpretation to these lines: the fennel (flattery, deceit, used to ward off evil spirits) and columbines (faithlesness, adultery) are given to Claudius. I could make an argument for these going to Gertrude instead, particularly the columbine. She’s the one who quickly forgot her first husband and remarried to his brother, and perhaps the fennel is even meant to call her out on her own deceitful nature, or even to protect her from Claudius’ evil influences – but then again, it could be thrust at the king like a weapon meant to harm him, and he’s hardly an innocent where the columbines are concerned, having seduced his brother’s wife. Either way, these flowers’ meanings are also central to the story’s themes and hint at the sources of corruption in the Danish royal court.

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.

The rue, traditionally given to Gertrude, represents sorrow and regret. Gertrude may very well feel regret for her marriage to Claudius, but if so it’s barely even been hinted at. Perhaps “wear your rue with a difference” means that she doesn’t yet regret anything, but should and will, while Ophelia already does. On the other hand, Claudius has shown regret over murdering his brother, but although he prayed for forgiveness, his behavior has not changed. He’s still concealing his crime and plotting against his nephew/stepson. If it were given to him, “wear your rue with a difference” could mean that his regrets aren’t strong enough, whereas Ophelia’s are too strong.

There’s a daisy.

The daisy is confusing, because they symbolize innocence, but no one there is truly innocent, except possibly Ophelia herself. Given the hints that she’s slept with Hamlet, even she would not be innocent by the standards of the time. Some people have suggested that the daisy had another meaning, like faithlessness. But columbine symbolizes faithlessness as well, and innocence is the most widely-known meaning for the daisy. I think it’s possible the flower represents Ophelia’s dead father, who was an innocent mistakenly killed in place of the guilty one, or even the general loss of innocence explored by the play. Perhaps she doesn’t give it to anyone in particular.

I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.

Violets stand for faithfulness and love. Ophelia once believed very strongly in these, but first Hamlet’s rejection, then her father’s death left her unable to anymore. She feels horribly betrayed and alone. Furthermore, early in the play, her brother told her to think of Hamlet’s love as:

A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.
No more.

By referencing the same flower, Ophelia implies that love is fleeting, easily destroyed by time, death, or simply a change of heart. The withering of a flower with such a positive meaning goes hand-in-hand with her own fall into insanity and Hamlet’s transformation as he becomes more and more wrapped up in his quest for revenge.

Later, after her death, her brother references the flower again:

Lay her i’ th’ earth
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!

The violet, which was once said not to last, and then described as withered, is finally mentioned as sprouting from Ophelia’s grave, bringing the metaphor full circle. More than anything else – aside from perhaps Hamlet’s insistence that Horatio tell their story – this offers a sense of hope that the world will go on after these characters meet their tragic ends, and that the values they lost sight of still exist.