Hamlet: Ophelia and her Flowers–Uses

Yesterday, we took a look at the purely symbolic meanings of the flowers Ophelia hands out in her final appearance in Hamlet, and I mentioned possible recipients for each flower (as there are no stage directions). At the end of the post, though, I alluded there may be an alternate way to determine possible recipients.

What if there were other meanings to the flowers, not symbolic but rather medicinal?

All of the flowers have some effect on the body:

wiki pic
symbol medicinal uses

remembrance some women used rosemary to increase menstrual flow and to cause abortions

thoughts/lover’s thoughts; merriment can be used to deaden pain, to increase bowel movements and urination, and to relieve inflammation; also used as a treatment for herpes, nervous complaints, and hysteria

strength; sometimes flattery/deceit some women used fennel to increase the flow of breast milk, to promote menstruation, to ease the birthing process, or to increase sex drive

columbine (Aquilegia)
ingratitude, faithlessness; courage, love, desertion; sometimes folly can be used to shrink body tissues, to stimulate urination, to increase persperation, and to deaden pain

herb of grace o’ Sunday / rue
regret, sorrow, repentance; grace, clear vision; disdain some women used rue to relieve menstrual problems, to stimulate the uterus, and to cause an abortion

innocence, hope, loyal love, purity, faith, cheer, simplicity; sometimes dissembling can be used to increase bowel movements, and to alleviate stomach cramps

depending on color: faithfulness, loyalty, devotion; daydreaming; virtue, modesty can be used to alleviate depression/nervousness

Given these possible uses, the recipients change a little for me. Gertrude would get both the rosemary and fennel; both have female-centric medical uses. Laertes would receive both the pansy and the columbine, as they deaden pain, and the world of pain is the one her brother inhabits–from their father’s death to her new mental state.

Ophelia keeps some rue for herself, and hands out at least one other bit of rue: it could be Gertrude (again the female-cetntric use) or Claudius (for symbolism, as he “must wear (his) rue with a difference” [IV.v.177-8]; as he is not a woman, he cannot wear his by its medicinal purposes). But I think I might have Ophelia give both of them rue (her kept one almost a conspiratorial aside to Gertrude–women, unite!), but still Claudius will have to wear his differently.

The daisy I see tossed off, given to no one, as there’s no use for it here. And of course there is no violet to be given, but if it is–invisibly–I’d have her give it to everyone there except herself, to alleviate everyone’s depression except her own, which of course will lead to the description we get from Gertrude two scenes later.

Now, I can hear the wheels turning out there, O Readers. “But Bill,” you say, “this is her ‘mad scene’… wouldn’t this distribution take rational thought (as opposed to Shakespeare’s hand-guiding of symbolic gestures)?”

And you would have a point. If she was mad.

But what if she wasn’t mad. She’s “distracted” (IV.v.20 stage direction), explicitly, absolutely; “throw(n) into a state of mind in which one knows not how to act” (“distract, v.; 5” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 14 May 2015.) over the abandonments she’s feeling (dead dad, “enforced exile” lover). [NOTE: the word’s meaning of “rendered insane” (“distract, v.; 6” OED Online.) was only beginning to come into use when the play was written.] It feels more like desperation to me. But what might make her this desperate?

and here, through the magic of “inviso-text,” I reveal the answer… go back, click your mouse at the end of the world “flow” in the “rosemary” row of the table above (and at the end of the word “uterus” in the “rue” row as well), and–holding the mouse button down/depressed, drag the cursor to the end of the table cell… and you’ll see an additional use for those flowers/herbs… go ahead, I’ll wait.



foot tapping


fingertip drumming


Oh, you’re back

Both flowers could be used to cause an abortion.

Go with me on this, folks…

Polonius tells Ophelia in Act One,

’Tis told (him Hamlet) hath very oft of late
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous.
  • I.iii.90-2

Not only has he heard that they’ve been spending “private time” together, he also fears that she will “tender (him) a fool” (I.iii.108), or produce a child (Hamlet even goads Polonius by warning Ophelia’s father of her possible “conception” [II.ii.184]).

When Hamlet meets Ophelia in Act Three, Scene One (post-“To be or not to be”)–their first onstage dialogue in the play–he greets her with, “Nymph, in thy orisons, // Be all my sins remembered” (III.i.89-90). Note the use of the more familiar “thee,” as opposed to the formal and emotionally distant “you.” I think we can feel fairly certain that Hamlet is not calling her a “a maiden inhabiting the sea” (“nymph, n.; 1” OED Online.); that limits the meaning to either “a beautiful young woman” (“nymph, n.; 2.b.” OED Online.), or “a woman regarded as a means of sexual gratification” (“nymph, n.; 2.a.” OED Online.). If she’s the former and not the latter, why would he hope that “(his) sins” be remembered in her prayers (“orison, n.; 1.a.” OED Online.), and why would he ask if she was “honest” (III.i.103) or chaste? I’d argue for the more sexual reading (of course, I would).

Riding the waves of the ripple effect of that sex, one has to ask if Hamlet was aware if Ophelia was pregnant. I would argue no. His brutal attack of “Get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.121 and following) seems to go after their sexual history simply, pointing to the “whorehouse” slang meaning of “nunnery;” it’s ironic–and therefore even more painful–for him to also reference where many tarnished women were sent (a convent).

It is that pain that shell-shocks her; verbally, she is never the same after this meeting. This is the moment that begins the desperation that sends her, ultimately, to her death.

Before that death, however, we get this one last cry for help from Ophelia, a cry accompanied with flowers.

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