In Act 4, following the death of Polonius, his daughter Ophelia goes mad. Spurned by her lover Hamlet, who himself seems to have lost his mind, and left alone in a castle with no one to trust, Ophelia loses her grip on reality. As she prances through the halls of Elsinore singing songs that range from childish to bawdy to macabre, she passes out invisible “flowers” to those she meets, the eclectic variety of which symbolize her own complex personality. She passes out rosemary (traditionally carried by mourners at funerals), pansies (whose name is derived from the French word pensie, meaning “thought” or “remembrance”), fennel (a quick-dying flower symbolizing sorrow), columbines (a flower symbolizing affection, often given to lovers), and daisies (symbols of innocence and purity, and the flower of the Norse fertility goddess Freya). But Ophelia states that she has no violets left—they all withered when her father died. Violets are symbols of modesty, often tied to the Virgin Mary, implying that Ophelia no longer cares about upholding shallow social norms in the wake of such a devastating tragedy. Ophelia’s “bouquet” is contradictory: there are flowers associated with sorrow and mourning, but also happy remembrances; there are flowers that denote purity and chastity alongside flowers given as tokens of sexual or romantic love between partners. Ophelia’s flowers, then, symbolize her many-faceted personality and desires, which have been stripped, squashed, and corrupted by society’s expectations. Ophelia’s imaginary flowers tie in with the thematic representation of women’s issues throughout the play: Ophelia has had to change so much to survive in the world of men that she’s literally driven herself mad. It is significant that later on in the play, after her suicide by drowning, Ophelia’s body is found covered in “fantastic garlands” of flowers. In her final moments, Ophelia chooses to ring herself in emblems of all that she was and all that she could have been, had the world around her not shrunken and shriveled her until hardly anything was left.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Ophelia’s Flowers appears in Hamlet. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 4, Scene 5
...Ophelia continues singing on and on about a man shrouded, entombed, and covered in “sweet flowers” even as Gertrude asks her to stop. Claudius enters and greets Ophelia calmly, asking how... (full context)
...the depths of her grief than sane words ever could. Ophelia begins passing out invisible flowers—she gives out rosemary, pansies, fennel, and daisies, but states that all her violets withered with... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 7
...Ophelia has drowned in nearby brook. Her body was found covered in “fantastic garlands” of flowers and cloaked in gorgeous garments, though she died a “muddy death.” Laertes bids Claudius and... (full context)
Act 5, Scene 1