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Flower Symbolism in Hamlet

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  • 0:03 The Language of Flowers
  • 0:28 World of Weeds
  • 0:52 Ophelia's Confused Loyalty
  • 1:35 Ophelia's Bouquet of Madness
  • 3:14 Ophelia's Death
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'' is full of references to flowers. Every flower mentioned has meaning, whether it be violets or pansies. Flowers are especially meaningful to the character of Ophelia.

The Language of Flowers

Florists know that flowers have different meanings associated with them. A red rose means love, but a yellow one means friendship. And, giving someone a bouquet of orange lilies might be a subtle message that you hate them.

The meanings of flowers have been shown in many works of literature and poems. One of the most prevalent examples of flowers in literature comes from William Shakespeare's ''Hamlet''.

World of Weeds

The play begins as Hamlet returns to Denmark to attend his father's funeral. He discovers, much to his disgust, that his mother Gertrude has already married again, this time to his uncle Claudius. Hamlet's world is now turned into ''an unweeded garden that grows to seed.'' References to weeds continue throughout the play, usually in reference to Hamlet's disdain for Claudius.

Ophelia's Confused Loyalty

Ophelia's father Polonius and her brother Laertes both warn her of the insincerity of Hamlet's affections. Violets make their first appearance in the play when Laertes refers to Hamlet's feelings for Ophelia as ''a violet in the youth of a primy nature,/Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting....''

What Laertes means is that violets are fragile; they bloom quickly and don't last very long. Laertes wants to encourage Ophelia to resist temptation. Both Polonius and Laertes tell her she can never be queen; Hamlet is above her socially. He would just use her and not marry her. Ophelia's conflicted loyalties set the stage for her eventual breakdown.

Ophelia's Bouquet of Madness

Opheilia gets worse and worse, and Laertes laments her madness after as Ophelia delivers a floral soliloquy in front of her brother, Gertrude, and Claudius, subtly condemning her mother and stepfather's relationship.

Ophelia says, ''There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, pray you, love, remember. And there's pansies, that's for thoughts…'' She goes on to say, ''There's fennel for you, and columbines.''

No one knows whom the fennel is intended for. Some say it's for Gertrude because it represents the frailty of women, but some say it's for Claudius because it is also a symbol for flattery. Columbine also might go to Gertrude or Claudius, since it's a symbol of ingratitude, or deceived lovers, or male adultery and unfaithfulness.

Ophelia goes on to say, ''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.'' Rue is a symbol of bitterness and sorrow but also repentance, fitting for Gertrude. Some theorize that Claudius is given some, too.

Ophelia continues: ''There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they all withered when my father died.'' Daisies are either given to Gertrude or no one at all, depending on the interpretation of the play. Daisies represent innocence, so Ophelia either believes no one is innocent or only Gertrude is innocent in the whole fiasco. Violets once again appear, but only in words; no one is given them. Their withering represents the loss of faithfulness. She implies that no one still alive is deserving of the flowers of faithfulness.

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