Flowers in Shakespeare

Following on from Elizabethan gardens, today’s snippets are some flowers and herbs found in Shakespeare, along with their early modern associations.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me.
We may call it herb-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.
Ophelia, Hamlet (4.5.180-83)
Fennel was associated with insincerity and flattery. Columbines were associated with cuckoldry, due to the shape of their nectar organs, and rue was often linked with repentance and pity, often called the ‘herb of grace’. Daisies were very common and found all over, particularly in meadows. They were usually associated with unhappy love and dissembling. Violets were associated with love, but could be proverbial for the transcience of life and for unfaithfulness.


Other flowers found in Shakespeare include the gillyflower, ‘one of the fairest flowers o’ th season’, also known as ‘nature’s bastard’. The pansy, found in Hamlet, was associated with thoughts, especially of lovers, and was also called ‘love-in-idleness’.  The Marigold, ‘goes to bed with the sun and with him rises weeping,’ was one of the flowers of middle summer given to men of middle age.


The herb rosemary was often associated with rememberance and funerals, and sweet-marjoram was a herb used in cookery. The bay tree, also known as the laurel, called forth images of fame and reputation which dated from Roman England, willow was associated with grief and unrequited love, and plantain was used to treat wounds.


Unpleasant plants had unpleasant associations. The nettle called forth pain, poisoning and ugliness. The thistle represented the loss of both beauty and utility, and speargrass was associated with beggars who used it to create artificial wounds to garner sympathy.
Source: Shakespeare’s Words – see Useful Reading


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