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Flower symbolism in Millais’ Ophelia

Poor Ophelia’s tragic life and death is summed up by the flowers that float around her, as each bloom has a traditional meaning:

  • Violet - chastity and a young death
  • Rose - youth, love and beauty
  • Fritillary - sorrow
  • Nettle - pain
  • Crowflower - childishness
  • Pansy - love in vain
  • Daisy - innocence
  • Poppy - death and sleep

More on Shakespeare’s Ophelia in my post on Millais’ famous painting and another post on Ophelia’s floral-filled speech from Hamlet.

[source: tate.org]

Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais’ interpretation of the death of Ophelia (c 1851). This painting hangs in the Tate gallery in London and is even more tragic and beautiful when you see it the flesh.
The flowers that surround Ophelia are mentioned in the play, with some others added by Millais because of their symbolic meaning.
"There is a willow grows askant the brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. Therewith fantastic garlands did she make Of crowflowers, 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 crownet weedsClambering to hang, an envious sliver broke, When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like awhile 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, Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death.”
- Hamlet, Act 4, Sc.7

Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais’ interpretation of the death of Ophelia (c 1851). This painting hangs in the Tate gallery in London and is even more tragic and beautiful when you see it the flesh.

The flowers that surround Ophelia are mentioned in the play, with some others added by Millais because of their symbolic meaning.

"There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, 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 crownet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile 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,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”

- Hamlet, Act 4, Sc.7

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.—Oh, 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.

- - Hamlet, Act IV, Sc V - -

It’s Shakespeare’s 450th birthday today. To mark the anniversary, the Royal Shakespeare Company is starting an ambitious two-year tour of Hamlet that will visit every single country in the world.

In this passage, Ophelia, a young noblewoman of Denmark, driven mad by the rejection of Hamlet and grief over the murder of her father Polonius, strews flowers from a posy she has collected. Each flower has a symbolic meaning, which would probably have been commonly known in Shakespeare’s day. Ophelia is later found drowned, after climbing a willow tree and falling to her death when the branch breaks.