Ophelia, Herbalista

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

Ophelia is having a moment. This summer she’s the heroine of a major motion picture. She is portrayed by Daisy Ridley, who is also presently portraying, Rey, the heroine of the most recent Star Wars trilogy. This may seem strange, since Ophelia is a fictional character who is more than 400 years old. But she has had her moments before, most notably in the Victorian era. She was the darling subject of several eminent British Pre-Raphaelite painters, who had their respective models/muses/mistresses pose in bathtubs to come up with images like this:


OPHELIA, John Everett Milais (1852)

Ophelia was the beloved of Hamlet, hero of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Hamlet was a very bad boyfriend, but he was a complicated guy, and things in Elsinore were dark and scary.

Everybody used poor Ophelia as a pawn, while loudly explaining to everyone else how much they loved her. She finally had enough, and ended up dead, singing herbal songs to herself as she floated downstream to her doom.

Apparently, the drowning of a poor girl, rather like this (minus the dynastic intrigue) had happened back in Stratford, and Shakespeare was impressed enough with the image to pull it out of his hat as a very dramatic end for poor Ophelia.

But why did Shakespeare’s Ophelia go fatally floating down the river singing about herbs?

She, not unlike Hamlet, had begun to talk apparent and often bawdy nonsense after the death of her own father, Polonius. Clearly, she has gone mad. Well, possibly. There’s a lot of that going around at the castle.

She hands out flowers to those around her, citing their symbolic meanings, although she keeps for herself only rue, for remembrance. Everyone shakes their heads, metaphorically, and says it is very sad. Then they let her go down to the river, where, offstage, she climbs out onto a willow branch while garlanded with flowers. When the bough broke, Ophelia fell, still singing, still wreathed with flowers, floating away until her end. Later, there’s a lot of bluster and dueling over her grave. Because they all loved her so much.

What was Ophelia trying to tell us? First, the girl is upset. She distributes the following:

  • Rosemary, to her brother, Laertes, for remembrance and faithfulness. She may be saying goodbye, or she may be putting him on his guard.
  • Pansy, for faithfulness, is, she says, “for thoughts.”
  • Fennel and columbine, given to the murderous and possibly adulterous King Claudius, mean flattery and unfaithfulness.
  • Rue, used at the time to induce abortion, is very bitter. Its meanings evolved to incorporate two aspects: for adultery and bitter repentance. This she gives both Queen Gertrude and her, although she tells the Queen, “O, you must wear your rue with a difference.” She both seems to identify with the Queen’s difficulties and to distance herself from them. Which could mean lots of things.
  • Daisy: for innocence. She discards it.
  • Violet, for fidelity. “I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.” I don’t know exactly who this targets. Hamlet killed her father accidentally, when he thought he was killing his stepfather/uncle. Did I mention things were complicated at Elsinore? But whoever is the target, it’s obviously a slam.

Hamlet, obviously, is foremost in her thoughts, although he is not present in the scene. How many of these messages are meant for him? How much is a coded message, either to the audience or to the Court? Or is this truly, only the babbling of a mad woman?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. But it has a dream logic and an elegance that draws us in. Which is why this fictional waif is still having movies made about her, I suppose. Here’s to remembrance

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