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Wildflowers in the Works of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare: a world-famous playwright and poet whose words have shaped English fiction for centuries. Like many writers throughout history, the Bard took a fair bit of his writing inspiration from flowers- “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is likely the first quote most people will think of, but a surprising amount of wildflowers have been the subject of Shakespearean soliloquies as well. Here are a few of our favourite flowers that have the Shakespeare seal of approval.

Violets represent faithfulness and spirituality; in Hamlet, they’re especially important to Ophelia, the title character’s love interest and the original tragic flower girl. In her most famous scene, she gives out handfuls of flowers to the other characters, each rife with symbolism, but specifically mentions that she has no violets, as they died at the same time as her father Polonius. Suffice to say, it’s a rather clear sign of the sorry state she’s in.

Another flower given out by Ophelia is rue, some of which she gives to Queen Gertrude, some she keeps for herself. Rue is a herb renowned for its strong scent and bitter flavour, and as such is often tied to emotional bitterness and regret. If that symbolism isn’t depressing enough, Ophelia’s single daisy - a symbol of innocence and purity- doesn’t get given to anyone, and in some versions of the play it simply ends up on the floor.

On a brighter note, Ophelia isn’t the only Shakespearian girl giving out flowers. In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita distributes flowers among the guests of a sheep-shearing feast, including mint, marjoram and marigold. The specific meanings of each plant are less important here: more relevant is that they’re all plants which bloom in the late summer (leading to a cheeky joke about plants blooming mid-year given to middle-aged recipients) as well as the fact that they are wildflowers; Perdita claims to prefer wildflowers to the more fanciful flowers bred by man.

These two plays alone merely scratch the surface of Shakespeare’s many, many words on flowers, both in sonnets and on stage: perhaps his most floral play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where much of the action is caused by the love potion petals of the Love-In-Idleness flower and takes place among a floral, fairy-touched forest. Then there’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of the Bard’s lesser-known comedies featuring a full song on the beauty of wildflower meadows, ‘When Daisies Pied’!

It makes me wonder, could someone grow a garden based only on blooms recommended by the Bard? It’d certainly be an interesting challenge to try- who knows, you may discover the perfect plant to make your garden more lovely and temperate than a summer’s day!