Be All My Sins Remembered

By Ginger A. Apolo

Sep 9 2022

Up until this point, Ophelia has lived a rather charmed life – her father Polonius is chief counselor to King Claudius, thereby solidifying her family’s position in the world; her brother Laertes spends his time studying in France and making a separate life for himself there; Ophelia herself is in love and being courted by Hamlet, the very step-son of the king and the heir to the throne!

In the midst of this breathless romance, however, it is revealed that Hamlet has been driven mad by his need to avenge his father’s murder. He spurns Ophelia’s love, accusing her of enticing other men, telling her he never loved her, and ultimately reneging on his promise to marry her. She is heartbroken.

'And I, of ladies most deject and wretched
That sucked the honey of his music vows
…O, woe is me
T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!'
— HAMLET, Act III, Scene I —

Meanwhile, Polonius and King Claudius have contrived together to spy on Hamlet to see if they can figure out the root of his madness – is it love for Ophelia, or a true madness? This culminates in Hamlet’s accidental murder of Polonius, upending Ophelia’s life as she knows it and sending her into the spiral of a mental breakdown. She makes her final appearance before the court before running out of the castle entirely and drowning tragically in the nearby river.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. [...]
— HAMLET, Act IV, Scene VII —

The precise identity and taxonomy of the flowers Ophelia chooses to weave into her final garlands has been subject to much discourse between historians and botanists in almost equal measure. Although we may never know exactly which plants Shakespeare was referring to in this work, my research here leans towards plants that were likely to have grown in damp woodlands or along riverbanks like the one Ophelia was last seen on.

The first of these flowers, the crowflower, is thought to be Lynchnis flos-cuculi. Often referred to as the Ragged Robin, they symbolize naivety and ingratitude, suggesting that Ophelia was an innocent harmed in the crossfire of an interpersonal struggle that did not have to involve her. Use of these flowers also implies that she was resentful of Hamlet for devaluing their relationship, and even perhaps her own regret for not treasuring her life as it was.

Nettles, commonly known as weedy Urtica dioica, signify pain and cruelty. Shakespeare could have been referencing the cruelty and betrayal found between Hamlet and Ophelia, or between any of the members of castle, but may also have been suggesting the depths of Ophelia’s madness and pain – the stinging trichomes lining their leaves and stems would have significantly hurt Ophelia as she wove them into her garlands, but what is such pain to someone who has already suffered so much?

The identity of the final flowers Ophelia weaves into her garlands has been commonly misattributed to Arum maculatum (the Cuckoo-pint), as it has a large purple spadix that would inspire a “grosser name”, as Queen Gertrude demurrs. Closer study by Professor Charlotte F. Otten would, in fact, suggest that this flower is Orchis maculata, since taxonomically re-determined to be Dactylorhiza maculata:

“An examination, then, of the botanico-medical environment of Ophelia’s “long purples” or “dead men’s fingers” reveals: (1) that the Greek and Latin names, Orchis and Testiculus, were adopted because the roots resemble testicles and arouse carnal desires; (2) that the “grosser name[s]” (Ballocks, stones, cods, cullions, pintell, Serapia’s stones, Satyrion) connoted the organs of generation to Gertrude and her audience; (3) that the name Satyrion (applied by some herbalists to all the orchids), an ancient allusion to a satyr in both mythology and botany, is particularly appropriate in the incestuous kingdom where Hamlet refers to Claudius as a satyr (I.ii. 140); (4) that the insects, amphibians, reptiles, and animals suggested (flies, gnats, frogs, lizards, hares, goats, apes) were a reminder of the loathsome bestiality of copulation apart from legitimate love; and (5) that Serapia’s stones (with its reference to the licentious rites practiced in the worship of Serapis in Alexandria and later in Rome) was an indication of rank and gross adultery, the kind Hamlet ascribes to Claudius and Gertrude: “Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty!” (III.iv.93-94). The virgin Ophelia, who in mad distraction sings pitifully of a defiled and abandoned maid, adorns herself with flowers whose sexuality is so apparent that in the wearing of them she appears to bring dishonor upon herself.” — (Otten, 1979) 

Finally, Ophelia was last seen climbing into a willow tree, likely Salix babylonica to hang her completed garlands. When the bough underneath her snapped and sent her into the river, the weight of her clothing pulled her under the surface, transforming her flowers from pleasant decoration to funereal dress. The bark of willow trees is a source of salicin, which has over 3500 years of history been used to ease fever and inflammation, later becoming the basis of aspirin. Shakespeare may have been implying that Ophelia’s death was purposeful when thinking of Salix’s inherent pain killing properties, while simultaneously lamenting the death of an innocent under a “weeping” willow.

More about: Seed plants

Works Cited:

Burke, L. (1973). The Language of Flowers. Hugh Evelyn.
Desborough, M.J.R. and Keeling, D.M. (2017). The aspirin story – from willow to wonder drug. British Journal of Haematology, 177: 674-683.
Otten, C. F. (1979). Ophelia's "Long Purples" or "Dead Men's Fingers". Shakespeare Quarterly, 30(3), 397-402.
Shakespeare, W. (1603). Hamlet.