The language of flowers. A Universal but often misunderstood Interaction.


For many, flowers are often the go-to choice of gift for many occasions such as Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and general celebrations. Of course, this is understandable as who doesn’t appreciate receiving a bouquet of gorgeously arranged blossoms.

However, in the modern-day, the language of flowers has undeniably fallen out of fashion. What was once knowledge of great importance in the art of gifting has now been forgotten and overlooked by the masses.

The distinct meanings of individual flowers and plants vary in the traditions of different cultures, such as carnations being associated with funerals in France but viewed suitable as a Mother’s Day offering in the United States. Yet, what we commonly regard as the universal language of flowers – also known as floriography – was popularized during the Victorian Era. Not only did they designate specific meanings to different types of flowers but they also made the distinction between each colour and the physical placement of the bloom. All these rules and specifications allowed the Victorians to convey messages to each other that they would never dare to utter out loud in their “prim and proper” communities.

Flowered Prose

Due to the fascinating nature of the emblematic roles that flowers adopt, it comes as no surprise that they have been featured heavily in literature. Most notably, William Shakespeare utilised them to enrich his classic tale of Hamlet (first performed in 1609). In particular, the character of Ophelia is closely linked with the symbolic essence of nature.

At the beginning of the drama, Ophelia is regarded as a potential love interest of Prince Hamlet, the heir to the throne of Denmark. However, in Act 4, after the murder of her father at the hands of Hamlet, Ophelia descends into what one could only describe as hysteria. The infamous scene depicts the noblewoman narrating her distribution of imaginary flowers to several unspecified recipients.

Shakespeare intentionally omits the usage of stage directions during the speech and so, relies on the audience’s knowledge of floriography to reveal the receivers and Ophelia’s intentions behind each allocation. Generally, depending on reader interpretation and the version of the drama that is performed, the recipients include Hamlet, Laertes (Ophelia’s loving brother), Claudius (The King of Denmark and Hamlet’s stepfather), and Gertrude (The Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother).

Primarily, Ophelia claims to pass out rosemary which is traditionally carried by mourners at funerals and regarded to signify the act of remembrance. Similarly, it has also been tied in with eternal love – either for the deceased or living. Hence, it has been theorised that she delivers the herb to Laertes as a plea for him to never forget the importance of family given the murder of their father and her eventual suicide.

Mandy Wan, Literature Columnist for the Mackayan.  Pictured for her Article.

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‘rules and specifications allowed the Victorians to convey messages to each other that they would never dare to utter out loud in their “prim and proper” communities

Ophelia then offers pansies which in French is known to mean “thoughts” – in particular, the thoughts of a lover. It also was considered to be symbolic of memories and faithfulness. The former suggests that Ophelia intends to keep the pansies for herself as she wishes to preserve the tender feelings she once held for Hamlet whilst the rest of her world deteriorates into madness. On the other hand, regarding the latter of the two meanings, Laertes could also receive the pansies as an unvoiced commendation for his unwavering devotion towards his late father and sister.

Photo: Alcea BC

Ophelia then presents fennel – representative of a multitude of messages but notably adultery and flattery – and columbines which can symbolise deceit.

It is assumed that these plants are intended for Claudius, a shrewd and wicked man, who ascended to the throne by poisoning his brother: the late king and Hamlet’s father. Furthermore, he then wed his brother’s widow, Gertrude. Therefore, Ophelia metaphorically insults the king through her non-existent gifts which highlights how the language of flowers was used to avoid the strict rules of society.

Another example of this would be when the maiden simply mentions the presence of a daisy in her speech but does not offer it.

Since daisies are characteristic of purity, this could be interpreted as Ophelia suggesting there is no longer honesty within the Danish court and only betrayal and evil. A similar jibe is put forward when she also claims the violets in the castle “withered all when [her] father died”. This is significant as the bloom is a symbol of modesty and faithfulness – by affirming the absence of the violets, she alludes to the corruption she surrounds her.

The only herb that Ophelia explicitly claims for herself is rue – this is only fitting as the plant is indicative of regret and sorrow. Yet, it should be noted that she also offers some to an anonymous individual and advises them to “wear [it] with a difference”. In turn, it is plausible that the recipient is none other than Gertrude who Ophelia believes must repent for her lust towards a man like Claudius.

As a whole, it seems that it might be worth giving a little extra thought into the next bouquet you receive. After all, you may end up uncovering one’s true intentions – be it for better or worse.