Hamlet: Ophelia and her Flowers–Symbols

When we last see Ophelia in Hamlet, in Act Four, Scene Five, she enters distract, singing snatches of songs, then–if her dialogue is any clue–handing out flowers.

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. 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. They say he made a good end.
  • IV.v.170-2, 175-80

Flora and fauna usually have some kind of symbolism attached, though it can be tricky as those connotations change dependent upon regional and cultural difference. But from the research I’ve done, the flowers Ophelia mentions parse out something like this…

wiki pic flower symbol
rosemary remembrance
pansy thoughts/lover’s thoughts; merriment
fennel strength; sometimes flattery/deceit
columbine (Aquilegia) ingratitude, faithlessness; courage, love, desertion; sometimes folly
herb of grace o’ Sunday / rue regret, sorrow, repentance; grace, clear vision; disdain
daisy innocence, hope, loyal love, purity, faith, cheer, simplicity; sometimes dissembling
violet depending on color: faithfulness, loyalty, devotion; daydreaming; virtue, modesty

There are no explicit stage direction as to who receives which flowers, and different productions approach the speech differently. In the Branagh version, Ophelia doesn’t have flowers at all and is handing out nothings to Laertes. In the staged version with Burton directed by Gielgud, Ophelia entered with flowers, consciously dropped them, then handed out imaginary ones. In the Zefferelli version, she doesn’t hand out flowers, but bones and sticks), in still others where she gives all her flowers to a single recipient.

I think there are some clues for the director and the actor playing Ophelia, and if we go just by symbolism, rosemary (remembrance) might go to Laertes–possibly in an echo of the Ghost’s imploring Hamlet, “Remember me” (I.v.91). Pansies? I might have Ophelia keep that for herself; there’s no “you” connected to it verbally, and I could see her wanting to keep a lover’s thoughts. Fennel and columbine–these could go to Claudius as they both can mean faithlessness and deceit, and I can imagine Hamlet complaining to her about Claudius. Ophelia could give the rue to Gertrude, as they will share it, they’re both women, but Gertrude must wear hers “with a difference” (with clear vision of the deceitful Claudius?). I would have her keep the daisy (again, the lack of the verbal cue “you” and innocence fits the bill here). With violets, I see her coming full circle, coming back to Laertes–rewarding him for his loyalty and devotion, he’s returned to her when her father is “dead and gone” (IV.v.30), and Hamlet’s just gone; of course, there are no are no violets, so it’s the words she’s giving him, not the flower.

Those might work (and if you’ve got other ideas, please share below in the comments).

But what if the recipients don’t have to do with symbolism?

What do I mean? You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to find that out…

2 Replies to “Hamlet: Ophelia and her Flowers–Symbols”

  1. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research about this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such fantastic info being shared freely out there.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you found value in the site… tell a friend!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *