By Isabel Smith-Bernstein
We can find many of the themes of Hamlet hidden in the plants Ophelia hands out during her “mad scene.” The plants that Ophelia hands out are indicative of Shakespeare's genius, each has a hyper specific meaning and use that Shakespeare and his audiences would have known about. These plants also come together to make the garden that is what is rotting in Denmark.
Rosemary is for remembrance, a plant used in weddings and funerals in Elizabethan England.
"Remember me," says the ghost to Hamlet. And Hamlet responds, "Remember thee! / Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe." This suggests in the context of it being 1600 in the Globe Theatre that Hamlet's act of remembrance will become the focus of the theatre event. Revenge is a form of remembrance.
Hamlet's call to remember calls him back to life. Hamlet leaves lurking in the shadows of the court to take action against Claudius. He casts aside his inky cloak and instead develops an "antic disposition" and "wild and whirring words."
Fennel is for false flattery. That association grew from fennel's use as an appetite suppressant by fasters—it's a plant that appears to give sustenance but does not. Many things in the court of Denmark are not as they seem. In a play about a search for authenticity, it takes investigation to find the truth. Often, that manifests in unlawful spying. This is a play filled with spying. It highlights the distinction between public versus private; exterior and interior.
Pansies are for thoughts. They were also used to predict the future of your love life: Four veins meant hope; seven, constancy in love; eight, fickleness; nine, a change of heart; and eleven, disappointment in love and an early death. Hamlet is simultaneously a play that is obsessed with the past and with the future. Hamlet lives in the past in order to have a future; Gertrude tries to focus on her future, but Hamlet is a remembrance of the past; Ophelia returns Hamlet's remembrances so that both may have a chance to continue.
Daisies are symbols of purity and innocence, a flower that Ophelia does not hand out with the others because daisies no longer have a place in Denmark. She keeps it, perhaps as a hopeful gesture that Denmark could improve. Daisies are a reminder that the hope of heaven exists. This is a world where everyone is terrified of going to hell.
Columbine is a symbol of forsaken love. So many bonds go awry in the world of Hamlet. Hamlet is already a very interior play, the attention directed inward as people in the Renaissance developed English humanism. Hamlet's relationships with his love, his mother, his father, his uncle, his best friends, all go haywire as a result of the Ghost's request "Remember me." As the relationships break down in Hamlet, many characters are left isolated.
Violets are for melancholy and early death because they are one of the flowers Persephone gathered when she was kidnapped by Hades. Every character who dies and appears within Hamlet has met an early death. Violets come to represent the danger in the world of rotting Denmark.
Rue is documented in every herbal book from Shakespeare's period and before as an herb that causes abortion. From the Batman Herbal, rue ". . . putteth a dead childe out of the wombe and cleanseth the mother [uterus] and bringest out filth and uncleanness thereof, and purgeth and cleaneth the mother full clean." This is the plant that Ophelia notably gives to herself, which would signal to Elizabethan audiences that she needed rue. This relates to Hamlet telling Ophelia to get to a nunnery, and their love for each other which goes far beyond that of courtship. Rue is also the herb of bitterness of repentance. In this way, rue is indicative of Hamlet as a whole because it is also rooted in the past. Its job is to fix past wrongs, and provide a glimmer of hope for the future.
Hamlet does end on a hopeful note. In Hamlet's final words he is finally fully in the present, demanding that Horatio tell his story—sounding just like is late father, proving that past is prologue.