Study flowers in Ophelia's garland to learn folk beliefs, Shakespeare
Rob Loughran, Special to The Chronicle
"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts," said Ophelia to her brother Laertes. "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 withered all when my father died."
William Shakespeare mentioned more than 200 species of plants in his plays. Twenty-nine scenes take place in groomed gardens and well-tended orchards. Plants, and plant lore, were important sources of metaphors for Shakespeare. Often, as in Ophelia's "garland speech," plants served as extended metaphors for the human condition. Here's what the plants in Ophelia's garland would have signified for an Elizabethan audience:
Rosemary has been associated with remembrance since the Golden Age of Greece, when students wore garlands of rosemary while studying to strengthen their memories. Its name comes from the Latin rosmarinus, "dew of the sea," referring to its blue flowers and rosemary's Mediterranean habitat on cliffs above the sea. In Shakespeare's time it was carried by bridesmaids at weddings and used in funeral wreaths. Robert Herrick, roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote:
"Grow it for two ends, it matters not at all,
Be it for my bridall or buriall."
Any man who couldn't smell the fragrant shrub was considered incapable of loving a woman. Rosemary in front of an English cottage indicated that the woman was head of the household, a folk belief that caused more than a few uprooted plants. Its special qualities also included the ability to repel plagues and certain types of witches. Sleeping with a sprig beneath your pillow chased away bad dreams. But for Ophelia, distraught and depressed over her father's death and Hamlet's odd behavior, the mention of rosemary indicates to her brother and the Elizabethan audience her brittle self-image and lack of confidence: "Pray you, love, remember."
Pansies, as Ophelia states, are for thoughts. The pansy was also used medicinally to relieve cramps, hysteria and diarrhea in children. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the Fairy King Oberon makes romantic use of the flower's juice: When applied to the eyelids of sleeping people, it was said, they will fall in love with whatever they see first after waking. This is how Titania, Oberon's wife, managed to fall in love with a donkey. Caution: The pansy's aphrodisiacal powers may apply only to fairies, nymphs and wood sprites. Please consult your physician before using in this manner. Results may vary.
Fennel appears often in Shakespeare. Although Falstaff mentioned the herb in "Henry IV, Part 2" as a seasoning for conger eels, the plant represented false flattery. Robert Greene wrote in "Quip for an Upstart Courtier": "Fennel I mean for flatterers." During the Middle Ages, fasting pilgrims would eat fennel seeds to stave off hunger pains. By providing some satiation, but no real sustenance, fennel came to represent the type of flattery that simply strokes the ego. Ophelia, with this reference to fennel, is probably alluding to her sterile love affair with Hamlet.
The columbine is symbolic of ingratitude and was known as the "thankless flower." Perhaps this name derives from the fact that columbine seeds consumed with wine brought on labor pains more quickly. A newer, tragic and senseless, association with the word "Columbine" entered our language on April 20, 1999.
Rue, for centuries a symbol of sorrow and repentance, is mentioned by the Gardener in "Richard II" after he discovers the Queen weeping in the garden:
"Here did she fall a tear; here in this place,
I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace;
Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen,
In the remembrance of a weeping queen."
Rue has a long, fabled history. It's known as the plant that King Mithridates VI of Pontus imbibed in increasing amounts to protect himself against poisoning. Hippocrates recommended the plant to relieve rheumatic pains, heart palpitations and menopausal symptoms. The herb's name is derived from the Greek ruta, "repentance." Greeks used rue while dining with foreigners to ward off demons, spells and spirits. Roman artisans ate the herb to improve their eyesight. Weasels were said to munch the bitter herb to strengthen themselves before combat against snakes and rats. Its other name, Herb o' Grace or Herb o' Sundays, refers to the sorrow and resulting grace one feels after true repentance. The suit of clubs in a deck of cards has been modeled after rue's fleshy, oblong leaves.
Daisy's English name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon daeges eage, "day's eye," and refers to the flower's opening during the day and closing at night. The daisy is associated with innocence and purity; in Roman myth the daisy is the virginal nymph Belides, who transformed herself into the flower to escape the sexual advances of the orchard god Vertumnus. The flower was symbolic of the Greco-Roman goddesses Aphrodite and Venus as well as Freya, the Norse goddess of beauty and love for whom Friday is named. Daisies picked between noon and 1 o'clock, according to folk beliefs, can be dried and carried as a good luck charm. Unlike the other plants in Ophelia's garland, the daisy seems to possess only good connotations.
The violet's scent, said Hamlet, was "Sweet, not lasting, the perfume and suppliance of a minute, no more" and reinforced the flower's traditional association with an early death. This tradition arose because the violet blooms early in spring and fades before summer and autumn arrive. This symbolism also explains why Laertes alludes to the violet and puns on "spring" in his speech over Ophelia's grave:
"Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring."
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