Shakespeare’s Valentines

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Elizabethan Garden at Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.

It’s a week before the celebration of Valentine’s Day, and many romantic suitors will be rushing to the florist to impress the objects of their affection with bountiful bouquets. While some may be primarily concerned with the aesthetic appeal of the flowers or if the blooms will break the bank, Shakespeare was well aware of the true significance of flowers as he referred to them quite purposefully in his prose. Shakespeare frequently used flowers as images to illustrate his ideas about people and surfaced through his characterization of kings, queens, and nations.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote “a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (2.1.85-6). The rose is referenced at least seventy times in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, used metaphorically to represent human lips and cheeks or to suggest a blush of shame or anger. In Henry VI Part I Shakespeare uses the rose to dramatize the start of the War of the Roses between the rival houses of York and Lancaster. Shakespeare depicted this scene in the temple garden in London between Richard Plantagenet of the House of York and the Earl of Somerset of the House of Lancaster. Both characters pluck a rose as a symbol of allegiance as Plantagenet declares “from off this brier pluck a white rose with me” and Somerset responds “pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me” (2.4.30 and 33).

In Elizabethan times, it was customary to wear garlands of weeds and wildflowers to mark joy and sorrow. Shakespeare referenced this in both Hamlet (“therewith fantastic garlands did she come, / Of crow-flowers, nettles, and daisies”, 4.7.140-1) and King Lear (“crown’d with rank fumitor and furrow-weeds”, 4.3.3). Shakespeare also used weeds to represent neglect, wasted time, war and the presence of weeds instead of flowers as a metaphor for the presence of evil where good should be. This is illustrated in Richard II (“I will go root away / The noisome weeds which without profit suck / The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers’, ‘our sea-walled garden, the whole land / Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up”, 3.4.38-40 and 44-5).

The evolution of the names of flowers from Elizabethan times to the present may lead to possible misinterpretation of the text for readers today. In Shakespeare’s time, a “crab” was a name used for the blossom of the crab apple tree. Due to the setting of The Tempest on an island, many readers today interpret Caliban’s speech (“I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow”, 2.2.166) as indicating crustacean creatures scrambling on the seashore, although in actuality he is referring to the crab apple tree.

Understanding the significance of flowers in Shakespeare’s time allows readers to have further insight into the text. For example, in Hamlet (“there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” 4.5.175), makes much more sense when you understand the long held association of the rosemary plant with faithfulness and remembrance. This possibly originates from the Elizabethan tradition of giving bridegrooms a nosegay of rosemary bound together with gold silk or lace on their wedding day by friends of the bride to represent his betrothed.

An understanding of the true meaning of flowers may also provide a lesson this Valentine’s Day for those choosing to give them as tokens of affection. It’s not necessarily the flashiest flower that conveys the strongest feelings. The simple and affordable pansy, named for the French word for thought ‘pensee’, was perhaps the best parting gift Ophelia could offer in Hamlet. Understanding the root of its meaning allows readers and bloom-buyers today to truly understand what Shakespeare meant when he wrote “pansies, that’s for thoughts” (4.7.176-7).

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Author:Holly Rodgers

Holly Rodgers is an educator, musician, and writer in the greater Washington DC area that has worked collaboratively with the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC to design lesson plans to promote the use of Shakespeare's works with English language learners. She has over a decade of experience in the field of education working as a band director, ESL teacher, presenter, and curriculum developer and is the founder of teachingtolkien.com, a blog designed as an education resource for teachers wishing to share the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with their students. Holly has presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library Elementary Educators Conference and their webinar and teacher-to-teacher technology sessions. Her elementary ESL students performed at the Folger in 2010 for the Emily Jordan Folger Children's Shakespeare Festival and were featured on the Verizon cable television program Push Pause. Holly has also presented her work with Shakespeare and English Language Learner (ELL) students at the WATESOL (Washington Area Teachers of ESOL), KYTESOL (Kentucky Teachers of ESOL), and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conventions and her work with Tolkien and ELL students at Mythcon, the conference of The Mythopoeic Society. Follow Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers

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