Wear your rue with a difference

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Baronet, PRA (1829 – 1896)

Most of the flowers in Ophelia are included either because they are mentioned in the play, or for their symbolic value. Millais observed these flowers growing wild by the river in Ewell. Because he painted the river scene over a period of five months, flowers appear next to those that bloom at different times of the year.

The following flowers and foliage are mentioned in Act IV.

Crow flowers in the foreground look similar to buttercups and symbolise ingratitude or childishness The weeping willow tree leaning over Ophelia is a symbol of forsaken love. The nettles that are growing around the willow’s branches represent pain.
The daisies floating near her right hand represent innocence. Ophelia also mentions ‘There’s a daisy’ in act 4, scene 5. The purple loosestrife on the upper right hand corner of the painting, near the edge of the frame, alludes to ‘long purples’ in the play. Shakespeare actually meant the purple orchid.
The pink roses that float by her cheek(above left) and her dress (above middle) and the white field rosesgrowing on the river bank (above right), may refer to Act IV, Scene V when Laertes calls his sister, ‘rose of May’. They are also included for their many symbolic meanings such as youth, love and beauty.The crownet weeds mentioned in the text refer to garlands of weeds. They may symbolise entanglement, choking, death and decline.
The garland of violets around Ophelia’s neck refer to Act IV, Scene V. ‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end.’ Violets are a symbol of faithfulness and they can also symbolise chastity and death in the young.
The following flowers were added to the scene by Millais:
The Meadowsweet flowers to the left of the purple loosestrife may signify the futility of her death. The pale blue forget-me-nots on the river bank below the purple loosestrife and in the immediate foreground, carry their meaning in their name. The pansies that float on the dress in the centre, refer to Act IV, Scene V where Ophelia gathers flowers in the field (‘that’s for thoughts’). They represent thought and they can also mean love in vain (the name comes from French, penses).
Ophelia’s sorrow is symbolised by the pheasant’s eye floating near the pansies (similar to the poppy) … …and the fritillary floating between the dress and the water’s edge in the bottom right hand corner. The vivid red poppy with its black seeds represents sleep and death.
Millais originally included some daffodils in the painting not observed in Ewell but later bought from Covent Garden in London as he felt the painting needed more yellow. But his friend, the poet Tennyson, suggested that they were not appropriate as they symbolised false hope. Perhaps they are primroses? There is a reference to primroses in Act 1, Scene 3, when Ophelia speaks to Laertes:

Ophelia : But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

http://www.tate.org.uk/ophelia/subject_symbolism.htm

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