Ophelia’s Imaginary Flowers

I like when I have questions about a particular scene in Shakespeare, and it turns out that there is no answer. That means I didn’t miss something :).  In this case the question was, “Does Ophelia hand out real flowers corresponding to what she says, does she hand out something like sticks or other generic thing that she’s only imagining are flowers, or is she holding nothing at all?”

I posted on the question and got two answers – “I’ve seen both” and “It depends on the director.”  The second came from … ahem … Stanley Wells.  Why he’s following me on Twitter I have no idea, but it gave me a thrill.

So, let’s talk about it, since it’s not a simple answer.  I think that most folks agree that the flowers she describes are not a random assortment.  Each has a meaning, and thus a message.  If it is staged that she gives out the actual flowers, I personally think that would ruin it. She still had enough wits about her to find the flowers and then deliver them like secret messages to their targets, like some sort of fish wrapped in newspaper ala the Godfather?  I don’t think so. 

At the other end is the idea that she’s got nothing – that she’s delusional, and imagining that she’s holding the flowers. This makes far more sense. She wants to speak her mind to the queen and king, but she’s unable to do that. So she imagines herself picking these flowers and being bold enough to walk up and hand them out. She’s not, of course.  That’s the point.  Hamlet can handle it, she can’t.

Know what I just noticed? Maybe I’m stupid for never seeing this before, but …

  • Hamlet’s dad?  Dead.  Killed by someone he would have thought to be a trusted friend/family member. The person he’d naturally turn to, his girlfriend, has basically dumped him. 
  • Ophelia’s dad? Dead.  Killed by someone she would have thought to be a trusted friend/family member. The person she’d naturally turn to, her boyfriend, is essentially stolen from her given that he’s the one that killed her dad.


  • Hamlet probably had no strong relationship with his uncle Claudius before this. So while it is a shock to be sure, as any murder would be, it’s not that “my whole world has been shattered by this news” order of magnitude that, say, Ophelia experiences.
  • Hamlet has at least one friend, Horatio. Ophelia has nobody.
  • Hamlet, the prince, has got the whole castle wondering what’s wrong with him and how they can fix it.  Ophelia’s own father thinks he knows everything about his daughter, and thus pays attention to nothing.

Is it really any wonder that she lost it?

15 thoughts on “Ophelia’s Imaginary Flowers

  1. While we're on the subject of the flowers, does Ophelia truly care about the significance of the messages? Not so much the meaning, but as for who they are meant for. I truly hope that makes sense. I'm picturing that she know the meanings of the flowers, (as it was pointed out, most Elizabethans would) but that she isn't the one tailoring the messages to each person, and that it's a dramatic choice on Shakespeare's part instead. I do agree though, as and actor/ director, I do like the imaginary flowers more.

    As for Hamlet disliking Claudius from the beginning, there might be more than just the family dynamic at stake. There are matters of state as well. By marrying his mother, Hamlet would essentially be cut out of the royal line, providing that Claudius and Gertrude had a child. Even if they didn't; Hamlet still should have assumed his father's place as king, but by Claudius' move; he essentially usurps the throne. Surely such an action would cause no shortage of animosity. Just some thoughts, of course.

  2. As long as we're keeping score.

    Hamlet has Horatio; Ophelia has Laertes.
    Also, Hamlet's loss, as you say, isn't in finding out he's 'lost" an uncle he already didn't really care about. He's had Claudius' number, character-wise, since before the play started. Finding out from the Ghost early on that his uncle is responsible is, as we can see from his response, really no great surprise or shock to him. He responds as though he almost expected the answer he's been given. The "shock", if you will, is the loss of his father; something he's been dealing with for quite some time.

    Re: the flowers. I like both treatments. 1) Simply imagining that the flowers are there for the reasons you pointed out. 2) Real flowers, for the idea that maybe Ophelia spends quite a bit of time wandering around just picking flowers. (Gertrude later describes her "fantastic garlands" and "weedy trophies")These are wild flowers, probably available in abundance in the natural surroundings.

    And the Elizabethan knowledge of what each of these flowers stood for would have been fairly common. This isn't the first or last time S, makes reference to the properties of plants.So much so that there's a book which makes his references the focus of an entire study. Their uses were well-known as remedies (efficacious or not). I don't think the fact that she's delusional might be used as an argument for her not knowing what each flower stands for, real or imagined, because it makes no sense that a "crazy person" could actually gather flowers they wanted to pick for a reason–that reason being sane or not. Especially since she very definitely remembers and poignantly points out each flower's meaning and intention, whether she has actually has picked it or not.

    It was believed that great clarity and saneness–sometimes genius– often surfaced in insanity. As Polonius has earlier said, "Though this be Madness,/Yet there is Method in in't."

  3. Ophelia has Laertes? Maybe in general, in the big brother sense, at the play's start. But Laertes has gone back to school and the first we see of his return is to march straight to Claudius, not to his sister.

    Re: Hamlet's shock — you got all that from "O my prophetic soul! My uncle!"? Is that supposed to be what that line means, re: prophetic, that Hamlet always kinda sorta knew Claudius was up to no good? I suppose it never occurred to me, I think I always assumed he was talking about the ghost and not himself.

    Your interpretation of real flowers, I think, is different from what I was thinking. If I imagine Ophelia running around the gardens choosing specific flowers for the message she wants to send, I find it hard to find her mad at that point. But I think what you're suggesting is that, in her madness, she's just wandering around picking a basket of whatever wildflowers are at hand … and only when she sees the king and queen does she suddenly, pull this savant-like move of handing them out for very specific reasons. So yes, a method with madness in it.

    While I like it from a literary perspective, I don't think I'd stage it that way. Too much is implied offstage about what Ophelia's been doing, that the audience would have to guess at. Give her a basket full of sticks and you take it to one level (she's still sane enough to be out picking flowers, she just no longer knows what she's looking at), and if you go completely imaginary then she's fully gone, she's only dreamed that she picked the flowers to begin with.

  4. He's already described Claudius as a "Satyr" …no more like my Father than I to Hercules. Also, technically, Claudius is responsible for his Mother "…post[ing] with such dexterity to Incestuous sheets." Whether anything occurred before his father's death or not, this is still an "Incestuous" relationship; legally, technically, and actually, and everyone in the court knows it. Also, he's "popped between the election and my hopes." (although stated later, an actuality now, nonetheless and one that Hamlet realizes)
    He simply does not like nor trust the guy–innately. His keenness at ferreting out the truth in human nature has alerted him long before this to beware of Claudius.
    Back to plant references: " …'tis an unweeded Garden/That grows to Seed: Things rank, and gross in Nature/Posses it merely." He knows, presciently,that far too many things are not right–and guess who's responsible for all of them?
    I think all of this is what Hamlet refers to when he says, "O my Prophetic soul." It naturally follows for him that Claudius is the culprit.
    I don't think there's a question that he's definitely speaking of his own prophetic soul.

    I also like the imaginary flowers as a concept more. But as a director I'd have to work with the specific Ophelia first to see how she handled both scenarios and how they played before I could come to a decision on how to stage it.

  5. James said…
    Another mystery to me in Hamlet is what did he do with Polonius' body?

    "…if you find him not this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the Lobby."

    Under the staircase to the lobby.

  6. Sorry. I didn't mean to sound so absolute.
    The picture I always had was that as you ascend the stairs to the lobby you'd smell him if he was left there too long–ergo, under that staircase. But it could be somewhere in the lobby itself, I suppose.

  7. I think that we can never really know Hamlet's feelings toward Claudius before the play. Too much has happened that defines the relationship now. Claudius could have been Hamlet's favorite uncle for all we know, out playing catch with him every day, but one day having your mom say "Hamlet? Your uncle Claudius and I have some news… we're getting married! So that means Claudius will be king, isn't that great?" is enough to tarnish even the best relationship.

  8. True we can never KNOW Hamlet's feelings before the play. But I think given Hamlet's ability to discern, and the facts of what Claudius is capable of doing, supposition would lean more realistically toward Hamlet having already made a few negative decisions about this "Satyr", rather than his favorite "Uncle Claudy" suddenly "surprising" him with all of his nefarious capabilities. In fact, as aforementioned, Claudius' behavior is no big surprise to Hamlet. Claudius is an obvious phony. And if not, the actor playing the role isn't doing his job. If there's anything Hamlet despises in human nature it's phoniness and deception. And though Claudius' PR campaign might fool others, it doesn't go unnoticed by Hamlet from the very beginning of the play, given every comment, and the attitude he displays about Claudius. He also complains about things he apparently already knew about Claudius' character before he finds out about the murder. His proclivity toward drunkenness, for example.
    Again,as mentioned before, from his words, he knows (feels) something bigger is up–it's not simply the marriage that's bugging him Why?
    True, this is also extrapolation on my part. But it's based on what S. gives us, not on what he doesn't give us.

    Supposing he and Claudius might just as well have romped together in an imaginary filial Nirvana before the play begins, given no evidence at all, is stretching it a bit far in my opinion. And to bring out that aspect, if true, would involve an about-face in the character of Claudius and writing several more scenes to make it anywhere near apparent.

  9. Good topic Duane. In most shows I've seen, the flower have either been real flowers or random twigs. That, or polaroid photos (Ethan Hawke movie version).

    The that intrigues me in that scene is "you must wear your rue with a difference." Which character receives the rue (symbolizing regret). Ophelia keeps some for herself, appropriately, but who does she give the other sprig too? Leartes? Gertrude? I could see either working. Has anyone ever seen a production where the recipient actually wore their rue (in a bottonhole, or a hat) for the rest of the play? That would be interesting choice, giving the character and the audience a reminder of Ophelia in the last act. A similar thing was done in an RSC Hamlet where the Prince carried Yorick's skull as a talisman for the rest of the play. Any productions come to mind where Gertrude or Leartes "wore their rue with a difference"?

  10. Well, We know that there was specific coding in Early Modern drama for what a crazy woman looked and acted like. In original productions of Hamlet, Ophelia would have worn her hear down along with other displays which told the audience that she was crazy. In Early Modern drama more thought than that would most likely not be given to the part. Shakespeare's actors enacted archetypes not developed psychologies. However, as a Modern audience we can impose a Psychological framework on the characters because they are so intriguingly developed.

    I have always played this scene out in my head in very specific ways (because I really don't like most Ophelias' performances of madness) and since my envisioning hasn't come up yet in this discussion I think I will explain it in detail. I apologize in advance for the length.

    I have seen both the wild weeds and the miming of flowers that are not there. But I have never seen the dried herbs approach that I think the flora discussed lends itself too. Several, if not all are commonly dried plants. And at this stage of the play I believe it would be a very poignant image for her to come on stage with the contents of the dried herb drawer. Through primers, pamphlets and didactic poetry there was a meaning, purpose and pseudoscience for everything. It would be conceivable that Ophelia is remembering childhood lessons or reciting common beliefs about flowers in this speech. As the gentleman says to, "She speaks much of her father; says she hears / There’s tricks i’ the world, and hems, and beats her heart, / Spurns enviously 1 at straws, speaks things in doubt / That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing, / Yet the unshaped use of it doth move / The hearers to collection." Her words have no premeditated meaning that is decipherable but is so vague that it looks that there is a meaning just out of reach of the listens. Our conversation on the meaning of this speech just shows how skilled Shakespeare was at producing the very thing he describes elsewhere. While it is unclear who she addresses during this speech, it can have very interesting implications, Alexi brought up a very good point. Most commonly I believe I have seen Ophelia address that line to Laertes. If that is the case, telling him that he must wear his rue "with a difference", points out the exaggerated difference between mourning which I see as troubling reoccurrence throughout Hamlet.

    There is so much more that I could say on the matter because of the time I've devoted to thinking about Ophelia, but I'm sure I've gone on for too long already.

  11. JM, that is so true. Everyone faults Polonius for thinking Ophelia is the source of Hamlet's unrest, But it is a very logical conclusion to the behavior she describes. If Hamlet didn't have bigger issues under the surface, the things that Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, and Ophlelia do most likely would have ended in a wedding. I mean think about it: if Hamlet wasn't insanely suspicious of his uncle, having the woman he loves (who has also been spurning his affection) tell him that he has been neglecting her too much would have led to a battle of wits (which it does) that would have ended with the two of them madly in love with one another a la Beatrice and Benedick (instead of his going on a tirade about how all marriages are doomed, certain people should die, and it would be better for Ophelia to use men for her own sexual pleasure and get paid for it rather than forming meaningful relationships with men who are fundamentally corrupt).

  12. Great stuff Monica.

    Personally, I'd like to see more attention paid to archetypes in interpretation. I think we sometimes layer it too deeply and impose things never intended when we lose sight of the idea that these characters and the actors who portrayed them knew nothing of Freud–or Lee Strasberg–and didn't care. And the archetype, if understood and acted, will cause an audience to sit up and take notice far better than some actor musing internally about the "whys" of their craziness.
    Another good example of overdoing interpretation: So much confusion and misappropriated opinion has evolved out of Hamlet's earlier strange "crazy" behavior described to Polonius by Ophelia, when in fact Shakespeare is more or less describing the stereotypical behavior of a jilted lover of the time.

  13. But at that point in the play, Hamnlet has already assumed his "antic disposition" so it then becomes a matter of the actor's interpretation, going back to the ages of old question of Hamlet's lunacy. If he's mad, then his statements mean one thing about the wickeness of mankind. However, if he is not, then his statements are merely being put on, and as such are immediately suspect. Whenever I was first learning how to act classical texts, I was reminded constantly of one point, which is "There is no subtext in Shakespeare." Basically, if Shakespeare wanted it on stage, he put it in (hence the reasoning for soliloquies and asides)Hence, Ophelia's flowers are a completely dramatic, and not symbolic choice. That being said, that moment is extremely important, and all of the choices should be weighted heavily. Just my thoughts, of course.

  14. When I took acting, I also heard the "Shakespeare has no subtext" line and while I agree that you can't write out a line for line subtext like you can for Classic Realism, I would argue that Shakespeare is vague enough that in places it is a director's choice to make a decision about a piece of Shakespeare's text which an actor would then play as a subtext.

    For instance: In All's Well that Ends Well, Bertram gets this last minute conversion in which he vows to truly love his wife, whom he has been avoiding the entire play. If you play that character literally throughout the whole scene, then when the conversion comes it seems ingenuine. However, if the director imposes on the scene his own views about the character is trying to get out of the scene, which affects the entire ending and message of the play, we can understand why bertram is so flighty one moment and so resolute the next.

    The same can be said about the madness in Hamlet. I have said director up to now because in my opinion a production is the artistic vision of the Director, but really such character choices such as Hamlet's Lunacy and Ophelia's Flowers, should be made as group decision between Director and Actor.

    I think such decisions which so fundamentally change the play are well within a Director's artistic rights because as long as you can find a reason for it in the text you can use it how you want. And Shakespeare's text has so much in it that you could probably do nothing but preform the same play every year for the rest of your life and each time do it differently.

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