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© 2001 All Rights Reserved.

Volume 2, Number 2
Spring 2001
On line Version


Shakespeare's Violets
By  Geraldine Adamich Laufer.

AVS member Geraldine Adamich Laufer is a noted horticulturist, author, garden-circuit lecturer, and a columnist for The Herb Companion. She is also the Public Relations Manager for the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

Geri's Books


Elizabethan Herb Song            

Plant me a garden to heal the body,
Betony, yarrow and daisies to mend,
Sage for the blood and comfrey for bones,
Foxglove and hyssop the sick to tend.


Tansy, rosemary, rue and thyme,
Bring back the lover who once was mine.
I will give him the sweet basil tree
Then he will always belong to me.
Plant me a garden to heal the heart,
Balm for joy and the sweet violet,
Cowslips, pansies and chamomile,
To ease the pain I want to forget


Plant me a garden to heal the soul,
A garden of peace and tranquility
Soothed with the scent of lavender
And the heavenly blue of chicory.



Image of Old Card



          The Critics are agreed on one point; that is, that Shakespeare was the most wonderfully many-sided writer the world has ever known. In the scenes of his plays he paints a picture of the world as he knew it, describing every occupation and hobby; every science and art; every phase of the life of his time.

          Flowers, plants and herbs are not neglected. William Shakespeare grew up a country boy and never lost his love for flowers. In his writings, his strong feelings for flowers and gardening, and his wide (though perhaps not deep) knowledge of plants shines through. More than 200 plants, wild and cultivated, are mentioned in his plays and sonnets. In a few simple words and with a few natural touches he brings before his readers the familiar plants he knew in the hedgerows of the Warwickshire countryside.

          Flowers and herbs come before the reader in the most natural way, as if the flower named was the only one that could possibly be cited on that occasion. His descriptions are thoroughly fresh and real, and tell of the pleasure he had in the familiar plants of the English countryside and the local cottage gardens.

          The Elizabethans valued flowers and herbs in a way quite different than today. They depended on plants not only for food and shelter, but for many other purposes. Herbs were required for flavoring, stuffing, garnishing and for seasoning wines. Their clothes were dyed with vegetable dyes. There was no medicine as we know it, and people depended on "simples" concocted of plants with real or imagined virtues. Modern science did not exist, and consequently medicine and magic often overlapped. Additionally, Elizabethan audiences were much more familiar with plant symbolism than are today's audiences, so many of Shakespeare's finest points are made with allusions to floral sentiments and meanings. Cosmetic uses for herbs were numerous, and ranged from sweet-scented oils to fanciful "cures" for baldness. Flowers were used ornamentally in pleasure gardens, first seen in Elizabethan times, both for their fragrance and for their subtle colors. In cooking, strong flavors were needed to mask rancid odors in the days before refrigeration, and herbs and edible flowers were used to vary the sameness of the winter diet. Soothing and refreshing herbal teas were popular in Shakespeare's time-before China tea or South American coffee were widely known-because they were available and could be grown at home, and because water was thought to be unfit to drink! This dependence on plants extended to every aspect of life in Shakespeare's world.

          Shakespeare loved the sweet and humble violet, one of the first flowers to bloom and a harbinger of spring. Dozens of quotes name the demure violet that greets the early spring with fragrant perfume and blue blossoms. One of the important writers on "plants of Shakespeare," F. G. Savage, in The Flora and Folklore of Shakespeare (1923) writes, "Nothing respecting the flower escaped the eye of the poet, its colour, scent, habit of growth, and tender purposes for which it was employed, are all beautifully set forth in the eighteen passages in which it is mentioned with an exactness unsurpassable and quite impossible to anyone not thoroughly conversant with the hidden charm and beauties of this, most modest of coy flowers.".

Hamlet (Act I, scene 3.)
"A violet in the youth of primy nature,
 Forward, not permanent."
Sonnet XCIX
"The forward violet thus I did chide-
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells
If not from my love's breath?"
Love's Labours Lost (Act V, scene 2.)
"Daisies pied and violets blue And lady-smocks all silver-white."

          A favorite quotation from A Midsummer Night's Dream names the violet along with several other fragrant flowers:

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act II, scene 1.)
"I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
 Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
 Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
 With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
 There sleeps Titania, some time of the night,
 Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight.".

Gohstly Violets Image

          Or another bank of violets:

Bank of Violets Image
Twelfth Night (Act I, scene 1.)
"Like the sweet sound,
 That breathes upon a bank of violets."
King Richard II (Act V, scene 2.)
"Welcome my son: who are the violets now
 That strew the green lap of the new come spring?"
          Illusions to death and to the grave sometime include the violet:
Pericles (Act IV, scene 1.)
"Purple violets and marigolds,
 Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave."

Cemetary Image

          After Ophelia's demise, the wish is expressed that:

Gohstly Violets Image

Hamlet (Act V, scene 1.)
"From her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring!"
          Ophelia's wilted violets allude to the fact that something was not quite right ("rotten in the state of Denmark") about the death of her father.

Hamlet (Act IV, scene 5.)
"There's a daisy: I would give you some violets but they withered all when my Father died."
          Many of Shakespeare's lines and phrases have left the realm of literature and jumped into the common language. For example, 'to gild the lily' referring to a surfeit or overabundance derives from a quotation that originally included the heavenly fragrance of the violet:
First Violet Image
King John (Act IV, scene 2.)
"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
 To throw a perfume on the violet, . . .
 Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."
          And the humble violet is named when referring to the humanity of the King:
King Henry V (Act IV, scene 1.)
"I think the king is but a man, as I am;
 The violet smells the same to him as it doth to me."

          The Bard delighted in violets, and among those native to his English isles were Viola odorata, V. reichenbachiana (formerly V. sylvatica), V. hirta and V. canina. Embodied in Shakespeare's thoughtful lines are truths known from our own gardens, and it is fascinating to speculate that the violets we love today are the same plants that William Shakespeare immortalized in his plays.  

© 2001 Geraldine Adamich Laufer
For The American Violet Society
All Rights Reserved


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