The Flowers of Ophelia
As described in “Hamlet”, garden has a much different meaning. “ ‘Tis an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely. ” (1. 2. 135-37) This quote said by Hamlet in his first soliloquy is explaining how he feels about his surroundings. As Hamlet is upset and angered over his fathers death and his mother remarriage, he feels that the world and people around him are an unweeded garden. In other words, Hamlet feels that he is surrounded by living things that are not being tended to. Floral imagery comes into the play when Laertes lectures Ophelia on the relationship between her and Hamlet.
He compares Hamlet’s love for her as “A violet in the youth of primy nature. ” (1. 3. 7) By stating this, Laertes is explaining to Ophelia that their love is not permanent, but like a violet; a flower that dies as quickly as it blooms. The symbolism of flowers and gardens are used to show the different characteristics of Ophelia. A large aspect is how her brother, Laertes is constantly trying to give her advice. I shall the effect of this good lesson keep, As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother, Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven… 1. 3. 45-8) Ophelia appreciates that Laertes is continuously giving her advice, but feels that he should step back and concentrate on taking his own. She uses garden imagery by saying it is a thorny path to heaven, meaning it is not as easy as it seems. The imagery and symbolism continues as Ophelia is scolded by her father, Polonius. Polonius tells Ophelia that she speaks like a “green girl”. This is explaining that she talks as a flower who has not bloomed yet; unknown to the world around her. After the accidental death of Ophelia’s father, Polonius, Ophelia turns mad.
Ophelia enters the castle with her whole figure and hair entwined with flowers. She begins to show her insanity by sitting upon the floor and playing with the flowers in a childish way as she sings. Another floral symbol is shown in Ophelia’s song, “Larded with sweet flowers; / Which bewept to the grave did go / With true-love showers. ” (4. 5. 37-9) She is singing of her fathers burial who would be covered in flowers while put into the grave. With loosing her mind, Ophelia hands out flowers to all those around her. She speaks directly of the symbolic meaning of those flowers, which is important of who she is giving each flower to. There’s rosemary, thats for remembrance, pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. ” (4. 5. 173-5)
It can be thought that Ophelia would be handing rosemary to Hamlet, in which she does not want him to forget about her. In feeling her disappointment that Hamlet is not present, the pansy would symbolize her thoughts of him there. 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: hey say he made a good end, — (4. 5. 78-83) Ophelia continues to pass out flowers as stated in the quote above. Fennel is a symbol of flattery as columbines are a symbol of infidelity. As passing these flowers to the King, it would’ve been considered an insult in Elizabethan times. It was brave of Ophelia to at first flatter the King and then accuse him of adultery, especially because he has the power to take her life. Rue is a symbol of regret. This herb was given to the Queen would symbolize her bitterness and could’ve been thought to be a symbol of her regretting the marriage of Claudius.
As for the daisy which was not given to anyone, can show the loss of innocence at this point in the play. The violet shows Ophelia’s faithfulness to her father. The reappearance of the violet is interesting in that it is the first flower Ophelia is compared to and the last flower she speaks of. Flower imagery continues to coincide with Ophelia up to her death. As Queen Gertrude describes Ophelia’s last moments, Ophelia is described as a flower herself. There is a willow grows aslant a brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There, with fantastic garlands did she come Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead-men’s-fingers call them; There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hand, an envious sliver broke; When down the weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like a while they bore her up: Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element: but long it could not be,
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death. (4. 7. 168-84) The Queen’s speech is describing how Ophelia went to the brook with garlands of flowers intending to hang them on the boughs of a far out tree. As Ophelia was climbing, a branch broke beneath her causing her to tumble into the brook. At first, her clothes kept her afloat. “As one incapable of her own distress” (4. 7. 180) Ophelia was unable to get herself out of the brook, therefore, she downed. The willow leaves mentioned by the queen can symbolize mourning.
Ophelia’s sudden death is mourned by all who are present at her burial. The “long purples” that Gertrude compares to “dead-men’s-fingers” refer to the plant we know as the purple orchid. This metaphor can be used to described the lifeless hands of Ophelia reaching up, trying to save herself from the brook. Further more, the excessive amount of flowers present, each with their own symbolic meaning, can be describing the many emotions that Ophelia was experiencing throughout the play, up to her death. It can easily be said that Shakespeare could’ve described Ophelia’s emotional state in a number of words.