Ophelia’s Bouquet

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. 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.

A few evenings ago, I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Hamlet staged by the National Theater in London with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. I thought it was an altogether exciting and illuminating production. Among other things, it made me think about the numerous times when Shakespeare refers to the use of plants and natural products in his plays. Indeed, Shakespeare mentions more than 200 species of plants in his plays and frequently stages scenes in orchards or gardens. Shakespeare was tapping into an ancient tradition of using flowers as symbols in painting and literature. For example, Botticelli’s famous painting Primavera is often interpreted as an allegory. The painting illustrates over 100 different flowers that are symbols for Neo-Platonic messages that the artist wanted to convey to his audience.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (circa 1470)
Detail from Primavera illustrating flowers

Of course, Hamlet is one of the most famous examples of the use of plants and flowers for two reasons. First of all, there is the speech given by the “mad” Ophelia in which she gives flowers to different characters as a way of imparting particular messages to them (quoted above). But what exactly are those messages and why are the flowers in question associated with these meanings? A second interesting question concerns the death of Hamlet’s father as related to him by his father’s ghost and then represented to Claudius and Gertrude by the Players in their presentation of “The murder of Gonzago.” What exactly was the poison that was used in this case and how does it work? Let’s take a brief look at these various questions.

Rosemary: Ophelia gives her brother Laertes a sprig of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) saying, “that’s for remembrance.” Here Ophelia is urging her brother not to forget the events that have recently transpired. Because its scent lasted a long time when it was rubbed on the skin, rosemary was often used as a symbol of remembering and of immortality. Shakespeare again refers to rosemary in Romeo and Juliet, when Friar Laurence says during Juliet’s internment,

Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary
On this fair corse; and, as the custom is,
In all her best array bear her to church

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse (1894)
Sibylle von Cleve by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526)

In Shakespeare’s time there was a custom of placing rosemary in coffins or of planting rosemary on a grave, suggesting that the memory of the deceased would never fade. Because rosemary does not shed its leaves, it also came to symbolize fidelity and fertility and so was often worn by brides. Lucas Cranach the Elder painted a fabulous portrait of Princess Sibylle von Cleve celebrating her betrothal to Johann Friedrich of Saxony in 1526. You can see a rosemary sprig in her hair.

All of which begs the question: is rosemary really good for your memory? And the answer may well be “yes.” Consider Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as an example of a situation in which human memory is severely compromised. One reason for this is that the neurodegenerative process that drives the disease targets nerves that are important for memory and other cognitive processes. In particular, nerves from the midbrain nucleus basalis that innervate the cortex are particularly sensitive and are some of the first to degenerate. These nerves use a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine to communicate with nerves in the cortex. When these nerves die, the stimulation of cortical nerves by acetylcholine decreases, and this is one of the major reasons for loss of cognitive ability. Normally, acetylcholine is destroyed by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. Hence, if one uses a drug to inhibit this enzyme then the levels of acetylcholine in the brain are increased. Theoretically, this should be helpful in AD and it is why acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are one of the types of drugs used to treat AD patients. Plants like rosemary contain thousands of small molecules. Some of these substances have interesting biological activities. Indeed, it is really amazing how many useful drugs had their origins as plant products. Consider morphine from the poppy, digoxin from the foxglove, aspirin from the willow, and vincristine from the periwinkle. Some “natural products” are shared by many different plants and others are unique. Often chemicals of this type are named for their plant of origin. For example, rosemary contains a substance known as rosmarinic acid. Analysis of the various chemical components of rosemary reveals that, among other things, it contains appreciable amounts of the chemical eucalyptol (also known as 1,8-cineole).


Interestingly, it has been shown that at concentrations found in the rosemary plant, this chemical can inhibit acetylcholinesterase and raise brain levels of acetylcholine. Getting mice to drink “shots” of rosemary water enhanced their performance in memory tests, thereby suggesting a 21st century explanation as to why rosemary has the ability to increase remembrance. Ophelia was right on the money with that one!

Pansy: Ophelia also gives pansies to Laertes for “thoughts.” Here, Shakespeare has come up with a nice little bilingual pun. In French, pansy is related to the word “pensées,” meaning “thoughts.” That is why in the Elizabethan era the pansy suggested sadness, pensiveness, and feelings of love. In fact, in Shakespeare’s time the flower called the pansy was really the wild ancestor of our modern hybrid pansy and was known as “heartsease” (Viola tricolor), a plant in the Viola family that we will discuss again below.

Fennel and Columbine: Ophelia gives these to King Claudius who we know has killed his brother and married his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is the symbol for flattery and columbine is considered the flower of “foolishness” and also for “deceived lovers,” a symbol of male adultery and faithlessness. Hence, Ophelia is implying that Claudius is susceptible to flattery and is also a fool and an adulterer. Fennel is a medicinal plant belonging to the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) family, used by humans since antiquity. Fennel has had an enormous number of uses since ancient times. The one which we are best acquainted with today is its culinary role because its mild aniseed-like flavor has made it popular throughout the world for use in salads and as a cooked vegetable. Fennel seeds are also often used as a “breath sweetener.” As far as its medical utility is concerned, fennel has been suggested to be effective in controlling infectious disorders of bacterial, fungal, viral, mycobacterium, and protozoal origin. It has antioxidant, antitumor, cytoprotective, hepatoprotective, hypoglycemic, and oestrogenic activities. Some publications have suggested that F. vulgare has a memory-enhancing effect. Here again, this may be due to its eucalyptol/1,8-cineole content, the same substance that is found in rosemary.

It’s not clear why fennel should be connected with flattery. There are some fennel phytochemicals that help to maintain a good complexion and fennel has been formulated into a face cream for that purpose. It has undergone trials for its “anti-aging” effects on the skin. Perhaps it was used cosmetically in Shakespeare’s time? Maybe Ophelia is implying that people like Claudius are too concerned with their looks and outward appearances, and that was connected with his susceptibility to flattery? (I realize this is a bit of a stretch!)

Fennel, medieval drawing
Columbine by Walter Crane from Flora’s Feast (1889)

Columbines are compact, herbaceous, flowering plants belonging to the genus Aquilegia which have long been of interest to both horticulturists and scientists. The existence of numerous species of columbines has made the plant a common choice for performing genetic studies on plant development. Different species of Aquilegia are found primarily in mountainous regions of Europe, Asia and North America. Their flowers are usually brightly colored and each petal is modified to have a tubular outgrowth called the nectar spur. The original meaning of the word Aquilegia was eagle, presumably because in ancient times people thought the flowers looked like the talons of an eagle. However, there have been other symbolic meanings as well. Most importantly for the present discussion, the columbine flower has also been thought to resemble the hat of a court jester, and it is this meaning that Shakespeare presumably had in mind for Hamlet. There are other symbolic meanings as well. The ancient Greeks and Romans attributed the plant to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and for the Victorians the columbine meant “the will to win.”

Columbines have been used in folk medicine in various parts of the world since antiquity for a variety of purposes. The root can supposedly be used for the treatment of diarrhea, stomach aches and uterine bleeding. Mashed fresh roots have traditionally been rubbed on aching, arthritic joints and applied to bee stings and skin sores to relieve pain. A mild decoction of the leaves has been used for sore throats, colds and coughs. A hair wash can be made from the boiled plant. Today, however, the most important thing to note about columbines is that they are quite toxic, particularly the seeds and roots which contain cardiotoxins. It’s not clear what is responsible for these toxic effects except for the observation that the plant contains “cardiotoxic activity,” but the exact identity of the cardiotoxic principle has not been defined.

Rue: Rue refers to the plant Ruta graveolens. Rue was often used as an ornamental plant owing to the color of its blue/green leaves. Rue has a bitter taste and in former times was therefore a symbol of regret and repentance. It is often used to signify this in phrases such as “rue the day.” Ophelia also refers to the plant as “a herb of grace on Sundays.” This was because when entering a church on a Sunday, the wearer dipped his rue in Holy Water—which always stood within the portals—and blessed himself with it hoping to obtain God’s grace or mercy. Rue not only symbolized bitterness but was the major cause of abortion in its day, which is also why it was also associated with adultery. Ophelia keeps a rue flower for herself but also gives one to Gertrude and says that she “must wear her rue with a difference.”Clearly Gertrude’s rue symbolizes something different than Ophelia’s. One might conclude that Ophelia was filled with bitterness due to the awful things Hamlet said to her as well as her father’s death, and that Gertrude’s rue represented adultery.

A “Paradise Garden” illustrating plants including rue (German, 15th century)

As with the other plants we are discussing, rue was formerly used to treat many common human ailments, but modern herbalists now question its effectiveness as well as its safety. In fact, some people who are extremely allergic to rue get blisters and/or a rash from handling the plant, especially on hot days. Consuming large amounts of rue can cause violent stomach pain, vomiting, and convulsions. Obviously pregnant women should never use it.


The chemical constituents of rue have been widely studied. Of course, like any plant it contains hundreds of natural products that have interesting chemical structures and which could have interesting effects on humans. Rue is particularly high in alkaloid content which presumably accounts for its bitter taste—alkaloids like strychnine and morphine are always bitter. It is also the original source of the chemical rutin, which was named after the plant and has been investigated for its therapeutic potential. A recent review considered some 50 possible uses for this compound! However, at this point in time, none of these uses are well established.

Daisy: Ophelia then sees an English daisy (Bellis perennis), which represents gentleness, innocence and righteousness—all qualities that she feels have been lost in the court. Ophelia doesn’t actually give the flower to anybody, but instead throws it to the ground. By denying the gift of a daisy, she is basically saying that there is no innocence left in the court. This is her way of expressing how corrupted the royal family has become.

As with the other plants mentioned here, daisies have been widely studied for their chemical composition and therapeutic properties. To this day, extracts of B. perennis are used for bruises, bleeding, muscular pain, purulent skin diseases, and rheumatism. Numerous interesting chemicals have been isolated from the plant, and some—like the perennisosides—are unique.

Lucrezia Borgia holding daisies by Bartolomeo da Venezia (1505)
Perennisosides—unique to the daisy Bellis perennis

Violet: Ophelia is probably referring to the common or English violet (Viola odorata). Ophelia says that she would have brought violets to give to everyone but that they all withered when her father died. Violets are a symbol for faithfulness and fidelity which have obviously been abandoned because of her mother and Hamlet’s lack of faithfulness in love.

The violet is commonly associated with its sweet smell and taste resulting in its use in perfumes and as a flavor in cooking. The fragrance of different flowers is the result of combinations of volatile chemicals (odorants) that are detected by special odorant receptors situated in the nasal epithelium. Binding of an odorant to a particular receptor initiates a pattern of nerve activity that signals to the brain. Different odorants have the ability to activate different combinations of odorant receptors—there are actually hundreds of these. Because the combination of odorant molecules produced by each flower is unique, the pattern of nerve activity they produce is also unique and hence they each have an individual aroma. In the case of violets, their smell is mainly due to the presence of chemicals called ionones, combined with other substances. It is interesting to note that when odorant receptors are activated by ionones, they signal to the brain and then “desensitize,” that is, lose their ability to activate nerves for a period of time. This is a form of cellular forgetfulness or perhaps “faithlessness”—although it is unlikely that Shakespeare was aware of these things when he wrote Hamlet!

Portrait of a man with skull and viola
Workshop of Jan van Scorel (1515)

Flowers also appear again in connection with Ophelia’s ultimate death as Queen Gertrude reports to her brother Laertes,

“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 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 pendant boughs her coronet 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 a while they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds 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.”

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851)

Finally there is the matter of the death of Hamlet’s father. As the ghost of Hamlet’s father explains to his son,

“Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.”

But what does Shakespeare mean by hebenon? It’s certainly a mystery. Hebenon appears to be a hapax legomenon, that is the only use of this word in the English language. From the spelling of the word, it has been speculated that Shakespeare was referring to either hemlock or henbane—both of which are certainly poisonous. However, the symptoms produced by “hebenon” aren’t really consistent with either of those poisons. The poisonous component of hemlock, which was also used to kill Socrates, is the alkaloid coniine, which is an agonist at nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and can produce paralysis. Henbane produces the alkaloids atropine and scopolamine which are antagonists at muscarinic acetylcholine receptors and can also be very toxic. Both hemlock and henbane have been known for their toxicity since ancient times. The death of Hamlet’s father, however, seems to be associated with the formation of blood clots and presumably a stroke. Some authors have speculated that what Shakespeare had in mind was the Yew tree which is widely distributed in England and is also extremely poisonous. The two cardiotoxins taxine A and taxine B, which interfere with the electrical activity of the heart, are responsible for the poisonous effects of the tree. Ingestion of these substances can result in an arrhythmia and increase the chance of blood clots in the upper chambers of the heart.

Taxine A

The most common complication of blood clots in the heart related to arrhythmias is stroke. Blood clots usually form in the left atrium. If they break off, they will move into the left ventricle and then into the arterial circulation. The anatomy of your arterial system places your brain in a direct path downstream where the clots can easily lodge, interrupting the flow of blood. This kind of symptomology seems better associated with the “curdling” produced by the poison that killed Hamlet’s father. At any rate, Shakespeare remains one of our most interesting sources as to the potential use of natural products around the turn of the 16th century and in ancient times. It is always interesting to try and decipher his particular meaning when he uses different plants in his dramas.