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Welcome to Episode #102 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When you study Hamlet, especially in school or when you read or watch a commentary on the play, it is not surprising to have someone point out to you that the flowers Ophelia carries in her bouquet as she sings her sad song after the loss of her Father, Polonius, hold powerful 16th century historical significance. It’s so important that I even included a nod to the flowers specifically in my 3 Minute Animated version of Hamlet that just published on Amazon Prime but even when I included them, that part of the play implores the viewer to “get thee to a library!” to learn more about the history. This lack of explanation presents a problem since not many commentaries or even animated versions of the play, will go beyond saying the flowers are important, to really take you behind the curtain and into the 16th century history of herbals, flowers, and Ophelia’s song specifically. To solve this problem, we invited our guest Dr. Richard Miller to sit down with us today. Richard has already gone to a library, and quite extensively put together Ophelia’s Bouquet, an article that illuminates the history of William Shakespeare that is found in Ophelia’s Flowers. Richard is here today to share the history of 16th century plants with you, and finally explain why these flowers are so important, and what you need to understand about the life of William Shakespeare when you discover Ophelia’s bouquet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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Richard Miller received his PhD from Cambridge University (UK) in 1975.In 1976 he joined the faculty of  the University of Chicago and since 2000 he has been at Northwestern University where he is the Alfred Newton Richards Professor of Pharmacology.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Richard Miller about :

  • What was the historical reputation of rosemary? 
  • Ophelia gives Fennel and Columbine to King Claudius. At this point in the play, the audience believes Claudius is a murderer and has married his dead brother’s wife. Richard, did Shakespeare select Fennel and Columbine here in order to reveal Claudius’ guilt to the audience?
  • What is Rue and why does Ophelia assign it to Sundays?

  • … and more!

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There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love,
remember.
Ophelia

Hamlet (IV.5)

c. 1500 Unknown Italian Artist. “Rosmarino” (family Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae), probably Rosmarinum officinalis, Rosemary, a rosette-like structure of branches with opposite leaves and small axial flowers atop a thick stem, or trunk, green with a brown trunk and small blue flowers. Source.

 

Rosemary for Remembrance

Rosemary has long been associated with funerals and remembrance, with the practice of laying sprigs of rosemary on a coffin or tombstone dating back to ancient Egypt. The tradition continued and was particularly popular culturally in medieval Europe, including England.  Shakespeare uses rosemary in association with death and funerals numerous times, both with Ophelia and then again in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet's death is marked with rosemary.

As well as remembrance, rosemary has the connection with strength, immortality, and fidelity. If you have ever planted rosemary you will notice the plant's hardiness as well as the smell of rosemary being very strong. When you cook with it, rosemary is often included in recipes due to it's aromatic quality.

This strength of odor was one practical reason it was useful in association with funerals during Shakespeare's lifetime, as simply practical reasons of the stench of a dead body made rosemary welcome as it masked the smell.

During the Middle Ages, rosemary was thought to be capable of dispelling negativity. As such, it was tucked under pillows to thwart nightmares and visits from evil spirits. It was also burned in the house to keep the black plague from entering. Perhaps this association with protection is why rosemary is still a common ingredient in incense used to cleanse sacred spaces. It was also thought to promote prosperity. In fact, 16th century merchants would often hire perfumers to infuse their shops with spirits of rosemary. The herb was also a popular addition to nosegays, wreaths, and other floral displays to encourage happiness of home and hearth. Source

In Hamlet, the association of Ophelia with rosemary is intended to add a sense of irony to that story since it is associated with fidelity and you can question the faithfulness of the characters themselves. 

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

There's fennel for you, and columbines…
Ophelia

Hamlet (IV.5)

1586 English Elizabethan Gardening, The Gardener's Labyrinth, C16 Woodcuts. Third Edition was Printed at London by Iohn VVolfe. 1586. Original manual was written by Thomas Hill (c 1528-), was an Elizabethan astrologer, author and compiler, famous for having written the first gardening book to be printed in England. “The Gardeners Labyrinth', 1577, was also something of a bestseller which went through several editions into the seventeenth century. The book was ‘gathered oute of all the principallest aucthors' and his own knowledge of the subject and his love of gardening are obvious making the book, as he hoped ‘not only pleasaunt to be read, but also right necessari to be knowne'. As Rosemary Verey has commented, in perusing The Gardener's Labyrinth, ‘you feel you are stepping into an Elizabethan garden with the sun shining, the bees flying and the gardeners at work digging the raised beds.' A common sense manual, it gives instructions on cultivating flowers, fruits, and vegetables, as well as describing methods for watering the garden, fencing it, and laying out knot gardens. The book contains numerous woodcut illustrations, valuable for their detail of the small Elizabethan garden and are especially interesting for their depiction of people working in their gardens.” Source

Fennel and Columbine

Fennel was for flattery. Ophelia was using fennel to show that King Claudius “was an overstuffed, arrogant man” (those are Richard's words.) Richard explains that for Ophelia, it is unclear why she was using fennel to mean arrogance since there is not a firm cultural parallel there to drawn upon. Richard theorizes that fennel was widely used in cooking during this period, with the seeds being used as a breath sweetener throughout Western Europe. (You chew on them and they emit a pleasant smell, freshening the breath not unlike chewing gum today.) The fennel plant, however, was not very hardy. If you cut the flower off the plant after it bloomed, they died quickly. Richard explains the association with flattery is metaphorically related to fennel since flattery, like the blooms of a fennel plant, are short lived.

Columbine is similarly associated with several different properties. It was first thought to look like the talons of an eagle. Or a jester’s hat. The Gardener's Chronicle records that Columbine is particularly beautiful after the rain because the plant as a unique ability to absorb water and retain it on the leaves of the plant in what Canon Ellacombe, researcher into Flowers of Spenser (pg.26), describes as “The form and disposition of the leaves, more than in any other of our common plants, retain the water in a multitude of shining globules, so that the Columbine, independently of its flowers, is a remarkably beautiful object at such times.” (Source). I cannot help but wonder, given Ophelia's subsequent death by drowning if there is not an intentional association here placed by Shakespeare when he has Ophelia use Columbine specifically. 

 

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I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace…
Gardener

Richard II (III.4)

Medieval illustration of gardening Rue, from the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Source

 

 

Rue, an herb of grace on Sunday

Rue is a plant with beautiful blue-green leaves. To eat it, the plant tastes (as the Gardner in Richard II informs us) to be “a sour herb” with a bitter flavor. For this reason, rue is often associated with regret. The idea is that you eat it, then immediately regret that decision. 

This plant and its' association with bitterness and regret is where we get the phrase “rue the day.” The reason Ophelia calls attention to the connection between Rue and Sundays, is because there is a religious reitual where church goers would wear rue on their clothing when walking into church and dip the rue into the holy water as part of the liturgy. 

The last, and perhaps most impactful assocation with rue relevant to our understanding of Ophelia is that rue was a well known abortificant. Alex Grahdwol, in his paper Herbal Abortificants and Their Classical Heritage in Tudor England describes the use of abortificants as a kind of under-the-table activity where it was common to use it in this manner, but even more common to denounce anyone doing so. He says,

Tudor women both commonly knew of and used herbal abortifacients. Most of the direct references to the practice denounce it but, in doing so, the authors show that they viewed the use of such herbs a substantial problem. Malleus Malificarum (the widely circulated treatise on witchcraft originally published in 1486 and infamous for fueling the witch craze of the following centuries) states that “a man can, by natural means, such as herbs, savin [juniper] for example” either prevent a woman from conceiving or force a miscarriage if she is already pregnant. 

Tudor women would take rue (and several other herbs which accomplished the same thing), as a way to end unwanted pregnancies. This is one reason many scholars of Hamlet debate whether Ophelia was pregnant before she died. The use of rue by Shakespeare here certainly lends towards that conclusion, though in true Shakespeare fashion, he raises more questions with that mention than he answers, leaving determination to us, the audience.

A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent- sweet, not lasting;
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more.
Laertes

Hamlet (I.3)

Portrait of Elizabeth I holding what appear to be violets. Painted by an unknown colonial artist c. 1575 (when Shakespeare was 11 years old). The National Portrait Gallery records that this painting “was almost certainly painted from life” This portrait of the Queen is known as the ‘Darnley portrait' after a previous owner. Source

Voilets and Daisies Native to England

Violets and Daisies are native to England. Used for centuries across Europe and Asia, the flowers are foundational to many perfumes, cosmetics, and even wine. (Source) In England, the flower is so common that it has a strong connection with what it means to be English (that may be one of many strong and pleasant attributes associated with the flower which may have compelled the artist painting the Darnely portrait to give violets to the Queen in his portrait of her.)

The common English daisy is known for being sweet, and representing a kind nature. Violets also have a very pleasant smell and are used in Shakespeare's Henry V, King John, and Love's Labour's Lost (among others) to indicate the arrival of Spring, as well as an association with happiness in bloom. They are common English daisies, sweet nature. Richard suggests that their association with fidelity and faithfulness would indicate Ophelia is declaring she is not as sweet as the people observing her might believe. Again, the flowers play a part in both foreshadow as well as irony in the play.

Coloured image of Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, England. Copper engraving by George Braun and Franz Hogenberg (1598) from Volume V of the town book, Civitates Orbic Terrarum, based on a 1582 drawing by Joris or Georg Hoefnagel. You can see the women in the bottom of the painting handing bouquets of flowers to one another. Having flowers on one's person for the benefit of the fragrance was highly popular during Elizabethan England. Image Source

Books & Resources Richard Miller recommends:

 

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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