Flowers in Shakespeare's plays

Information sheet

History, literature and gardening make a winning combination for a cross-curricular project.

  • School term: All year round
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s): English, History

Shakespeare’s plays include references to over fifty different types of flower including garden plants, wild flowers and herbs. They’ve inspired phrases such as ‘gilding the lily’ and ‘a rose by any other name’, and appeared in paintings such as those of Ophelia, the tragic heroine in Hamlet, who drowned herself surrounded by garlands of wild flowers.

Wild flowers and mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sometimes Shakespeare uses flowers descriptively, to create a scene in the mind of the audience. For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, King of the Fairies, is talking to his messenger Puck about where Queen Titania is sleeping:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;

[Act II Scene I Line 249]

These are all wild flowers – musk roses are Rosa arvensis, and eglantine is R. rubiginosa. Woodbine is an old name for honeysuckle, and oxlips are similar to cowslips, but larger.

Herbs and tragedy in Hamlet

In Shakespeare’s time people were more aware of the language of flowers, and he often made use of this floral symbolism. In Hamlet, Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain to the King of Denmark. Prince Hamlet is the king’s nephew and heir. Ophelia is in love with Hamlet but, during the course of the play, he not only spurns her, but murders her father. This drives her to insanity and, at the end of the famous ‘mad’ scene; she hands out flowers with telling messages:

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: 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:

[Act 4, Scene 5, Line 175]

Rosemary is particularly associated with remembrance of the dead, and pansies get their name from pensées, the French for thoughts. Fennel represents marital infidelity and columbine flattery or insincerity. Rue, also known as herb of grace, is very bitter and stands for regret, repentance and sorrow. Daisies are a symbol of innocence and the violets, now withered, mean faithfulness.

A Seasonal Flavour

Particular flowers are often used by Shakespeare as an indicator of the seasons. In A Winter’s Tale the rogue Autolycus sings about the coming of spring:

When daffodils begin to peer,

With heigh! the doxy over the dale,

Why, then comes in the sweet o' the year;

For the red blood reigns in the winter's pale.

[Act 4 Scene 3 Line 1]

Later in the same play, Perdita, a princess in disguise, teases a group of noblemen by comparing their middle age to the flowers of mid-summer:

Here's flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;

The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun

And with him rises weeping: these are flowers

Of middle summer, and I think they are given

To men of middle age.

[Act 4 Scene 4 Line 122]

Savoury is what we now call winter savory (Satureja montana), which tastes very similar to thyme but is more tolerant of cold wet soils.

Quotations and Misquotations

Two well-known expressions, ‘a rose by any other name’ and ‘gilding the lily’ are both floral misquotations from Shakespeare. The first comes from Romeo and Juliet when they are bemoaning the fact that, because of their names, they can never marry as their families are locked in a bitter feud. The words are spoken by Juliet:

What's in a name?  that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet. [Act II Scene II Line 43]

The second is from King John, spoken by a courtier:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily

To throw perfume on the violet …

Is wasteful and ridiculous excess

[Act 4 Scene 4 Line 11]

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