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Ophelia's flowers again.

~OPHELIA's distribution of flowers still awaits satisfactory elucidation', according to Harold Jenkins in his Arden edition of Hamlet.(1) In his commentary on Iv.v.173-83 and Iv.vii.165-82, Jenkins argues persuasively that there can be no single way of interpreting her flower semiology, because

This is a lore ... which must be sought ... less

in the standard herbals than in popular

beliefs. A difficulty for us is that much of it has

not survived.... [T]he same flowers do not

always signify the same thing; so that there is

the further difficulty, too often ignored by

the Shakespearean annotators, of selecting

meanings that are applicable to the play. (5 3 7) So, for Jenkins, ~the meanings of [Ophelia's] flowers are more suggestive than defined -- it is a virtue of the emblems to be open-ended' (542).

In particular, Jenkins points out that most of the flowers connected with Ophelia had sexual significances for the original audience which later commentators have chosen to ignore, although they fit her circumstances well. For instance: rosemary was often given as a token of remembrance between lovers, not merely in remembrance of the dead; the popular name for pansies was ~love-in-idleness', so the ~thoughts' they were used to represent were often erotic ones. Fennel symbolized not only flattery but also fickleness in love, and was even associated by Robert Greene (in A Quip for an Upstart Courtier) with women's sexual desire in general. Because of the homed shape of its nectaries, columbine became a symbol of cuckoldry for either sex; rue conventionally stood for sorrow and repentance, but was also thought to abate carnal lust. The daisy, emblem of Alcestis, symbolized self-sacrifice for love, but also represented dissembling love and the folly of believing such deceits; while long purples were probably a species of wild orchis, known as dead men's fingers' because of its purple spikes of flower but also, because of its testicle-like tubers, by the ~grosser' names of ~dog-stones, dog's-cods, cullions, fool's ballocks and many variations on these'(IV.vii.169 n.).

The sexual implications that Jenkins has suggested gain support from the fact that several of Ophelia's key flowers were also well known to the Elizabethans as contraceptives, abortifacients, and emmenagogues (i.e. agents to induce menstruation). In an important recent study, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance,(2) John Riddle demonstrates that there were extensive and detailed instructions for herbal abortifacients, involving literally dozens of plants, in such easily available and widely consulted Classical and early Medieval authorities as -- inter alia -- Hippocrates, Pliny the Elder, Galen, Soranus, Discorides, Albertus Magnus, Macer's De virtutibus herbarum, the most influential herbal in the Middle Ages, and the scarcely less popular Treasury of the Poor by Peter of Spain (who later became Pope John XXII); while the use of herbal contraceptives is explicitly mentioned not only in classical authors like Aristophanes, Ovid, and Juvenal, but also by Pietro Aretino in the late Italian Renaissance. Moreover, despite confusions of terminology, most of these remedies have been proved efficacious by recent research in endocrinology, and they are still used in countries such as China, India, and Latin America where medicine remains mainly herbal, besides cropping up from time to time in the modem West, usually when things go wrong.

However, this kind of knowledge disappeared from herbals and medical textbooks at the beginning of the Renaissance (which is probably why Shakespeare scholars have not noticed it), and Riddle speculates that this striking absence stemmed from a combination of two causes: the Christian churches' vehement opposition to sex without fertility; and the increasingly academic and theoretical training of doctors, which surrendered all aspects of gynaecology, and the herbal lore that for centuries had been associated with it, to midwives and their oral tradition:

Some of the reasons FOT the disappearance of

such knowledge has to do with the hidden

nature of female culture.... [Women were

the practitioners of medicinal contraception:

only women knew the secrets of what plants

to gather and when to gather them, the part of

the plant to use, the method of extracting and

preparing the drug, the optimum dose and the

best time to take it within the menstrual

cycle.(3) In other words, contraceptive knowledge of herbs survived in Shakespeare's time at the same level of folk wisdom to which Jenkins appeals; and, as a countryman with a proven fascination for plants, it seems unlikely that Shakespeare would be ignorant of it.

Five -- possibly six -- of the plants associated with Ophelia are, in fact, named in the early herbals as antifertility drugs, three very frequently and two less often. The latter are rosemary, still annotated in the Merck Index as ~Leaves formerly as emmenagogue', and the seeds of violets(4) (hence presumably one implication of ~withered'). Fennel and rue, on the other hand, are mentioned by all authorities as the most powerful abortifacients available, with rue most effective of all; and almost as frequently cited is white willow (~salix alba'), the tree from which Ophelia falls into the brook and drowns, the ~hoary' (i.e. silver-grey) underside of whose leaves Shakespeare goes out of his way to evoke, presumably with the intention of identifying it.

How far can such a level of reference be pushed, however? Romantic idealization of Ophelia still dominates critical tradition, but there is a well established though narrow stream of more critical opinion that sees in Ophelia Hamlet's cast off mistress, and in her own sense of guilt a contributory cause of her madness. To such critics her gathering of abortifacients would link easily to Polonius and Laertes' warnings against allowing Hamlet to seduce her; to Hamlet's own nauseous revulsion from the very idea of her fertility in conversation with Polonius:

For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog,

being a good kissing carrion -- Have you a

daughter? ... Let her not walk i'th'sun. Conception

is a blessing, but as your daughter

may conceive -- friend, look to't....

(II.ii.181-6) and to the impatient obscenity with which he treats her like a whore; to Ophelia's bawdy song about being seduced and abandoned and the sexual knowingness she reveals in her madness (which so embarrassed Victorian critics); and, finally, to the gravedigger's assumptions about her suicide and the curiously ~maimed rites' of her burial -- including, apparently, a reluctance to grant her a ~maiden cranz' (i.e. garland) -- in spite of Queen Gertrude's clear evidence that her death was accidental. Pushing this train of thought further, one might even trace her madness itself to the toxic effect of abortifacients taken incorrectly, which all the early herbals warn against.

This, however, is to ~botch the words up fit to [our] own thoughts', against which Queen Gertrude's gentleman warns before Ophelia's first mad entrance (Iv.v.10). These medical implications are all latent, at a level beneath more current emblematic associations. So, while recognizing their possibility - even probability -- for an Elizabethan audience, it seems best to interpret them like the bawdy song itself, not as signs of actual guilt but as wellings up from her now unguarded subconscious of fears implanted in Ophelia by the warnings of her father and brother and by Hamlet's own tormented cynicism. At most we might speculate that she is worried by amenorrhea (i.e. absence of menstruation, which is frequently a symptom of depression) and that in her breakdown she associates this with seduction.

Ultimately what is significant about this level of response, in fact, is that the destructive revulsion from sexuality that Jenkins sees as part of Hamlet's nihilistic death wish (152) compromises even our response to Ophelia's pretty identification with flowers. Such a muddying of audience certainties is entirely characteristic of the play's technique throughout. (1) Harold Jenkins (ed.), Hamlet (London, 1982), 526. Subsequent references will be placed in brackets within the text. (2) John M. Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass., 1992); see also John M. Riddle and J. Worth Estes, ~Oral Contraceptives in Ancient and Medieval Times', American Scientist, lxxx (May-June 1992),226-33. (3) Riddle and Estes, 226; cf. Riddle, 16: ~I suggest that this knowledge was primarily transmitted by a network of women working within the culture of their sex and that only occasionally was some of it learned by medical writers, almost all of whom were male.' Later male herbalists, such as John Gerard, mention antifertility plants merely to warn vehemently against their danger (Riddle, 154). (4) Riddle, 92. If crow-flower was the same as crowfoot, or ~buttercup', as is argued in Furness's Variorum edition, this too would rank as an antifertility herb (see Riddle, 80); modern editors, however, usually identify it as the ~ragged robin', a gillyflower or wallflower that was also occasionally listed as an abortifacient (Riddle, 85).
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Title Annotation:'Hamlet'
Author:Painter, Robert; Parker, Brian
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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