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5 Famous Shakespeare Flower Quotes Explained

Jule Romans is the author of "Shakespeare Love Quotes" and other books. She has over 30 years of experience in education.

Shakespeare's Ophelia and her flowers.

Shakespeare's Ophelia and her flowers.

Shakespeare Flower Quotes

Flower quotes by Shakespeare come from Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Hamlet, and Sonnet 130

Each of the flower quotes on this page has additional interesting facts about the play or time period from which it came. If you’ve been reading one of these plays, perhaps the quotes and explanations will help you understand them better.

Understanding Shakespeare's Flower Quotes

Some of these flower quotes are passionate declarations of love. Some are more philosophical. Many are short and memorable enough that they have become familiar sayings.

Sometimes, the flowers in the quotes had special symbolism or meaning in Shakespeare’s time. In this case, the flower quotes are more complex and specific. These types of quotes are less well-known.

1. Romeo and Juliet Flower Quote: "A Rose by Any Other Name"

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet Act II Scene ii Lines 45-47

Juliet is asking "What's so important about a name?" She suggests that the flower we happen to name a rose would smell just as lovely even if it had a different name.

What Does "A Rose by Any Other Name" Mean?

This famous Shakespeare flower quote comes from the play Romeo and Juliet. This quote is spoken by Juliet just after she has met Romeo. Juliet is unhappy because she has just learned that Romeo is a member of the family that is her enemy.

Juliet thinks she is alone on her balcony, but Romeo is actually secretly standing below and listening.

In this quote, she is saying that a name does not really change what a thing is. For example, a rose still gives off the same scent no matter what we call it. If we decide to call a rose a daisy, it will not change the way it smells or looks.

Likewise, Romeo’s last name does not change the fact that he is a wonderful person—even if his name is connected with something bad.

2. Hamlet Flower Quotes: Ophelia's Mad Scene

In Act 4 of Hamlet, Ophelia has gone mad. In her distress, she has a speech that seems to ramble, but actually has a great deal of flower symbolism. She says, in part:

"There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you; and here's some
for me: we may call it herb of grace a' Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died."

--Ophelia, in Hamlet, Act IV scene v Lines 180-185

Hamlet Flower Symbolism

Ophelia names a number of different flowers as she holds them in her hands. Each flower has a different symbolic meaning.

Fennel and Columbine stand for deceit and flattery. Rue symbolizes bitterness, and is also known as the herb of grace.

The daisy symbolizes innocence. Violets are the symbol of faithfulness, which Ophelia says all withered away when her father was killed. (Source)

Later, Ophelia is drowned, and her brother Laertes mourns her death. Laertes also invokes the symbolism of violets while he stands at Ophelia's grave.

"Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling."

Hamlet Act V Scene I Lines 238-242

He says, essentially "When you bury my sister, her innocence and pure soul will create the most delicate and beautiful flowers on the earth above her. She will be an angel when you are suffering in Hell.”

Violets are the symbol of faithfulness, also used in relation to Ophelia and Laertes' father.

Flower Symbolism for Ophelia and Laertes

Ophelia has gone insane. She is handing out flowers while muttering and singing songs that don’t make sense. As she gives out the flowers, she mentions her father’s death and says that there are no more violets because he is dead.

Very soon after, Ophelia drowns and her death is considered suspicious. It might have been suicide. For this reason, the priest does not what Ophelia to have a proper burial, since she committed the sin of suicide.

Ophelia’s brother Laertes is devastated by grief. Laertes says that Ophelia was so pure that the earth above her grave will be covered in violets and that she will become an angel. The priest, on the other hand, should be the one to go to hell.

Flower Symbolism for Ophelia and Hamlet

Violets have a symbolic meaning of faithfulness and fidelity—especially in marriage. Hamlet was Ophelia’s love. Hamlet killed Ophelia’s father and showed very little remorse. Ophelia was cautioned by her father not to give in to Hamlet’s romantic overtures.

There is some question about how far the relationship actually went. Hamlet seemed to love Ophelia but then treated her with great disrespect and appeared to betray her.

Laertes defends Ophelia’s honor not only to the priest but also by engaging in a fight with Hamlet right on top of her grave.

3. Sonnet 130 Flower Quote: A Surprising Meaning

“I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks . . . ”

Sonnet 130

The speaker in this sonnet is declaring that his beloved lady is imperfect. He says that he has seen beautiful roses streaked with lovely red and white colors. He goes on to say that, even so, he cannot say he sees such beauty in his loved one's face. Here's the entire sonnet, so you can understand it in context.

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare."

The Deeper Meaning of Sonnet 130

This quote comes from Sonnet 130, which begins “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” It’s a funny one because the entire sonnet actually describes how unattractive this man’s lover is.

Most love sonnets put a lot of emphasis on praising the woman, but this one almost insults her.

In the quote above, Shakespeare is saying that most poems describe the lady as having beautiful white skin and red cheeks that are as lovely as a rose. He says here, though, that his lady’s skin is not that pretty.

It is amusing and also thought-provoking with its twist ending. The last two lines of the sonnet say that he loves her exactly the way she is and that his honest love is better than any fancy phrases or elaborations.

Who is the Mistress in Sonnet 130?

No one really knows whether Shakespeare wrote all his sonnets for someone he actually loved, or if he simply produced them because he was a good poet. Some people suggest that he may have written them for a young man with whom he was enamored.

Others think he wrote them for a mysterious “dark lady” who held his affections. In many cases, there are sonnets worked into Shakespeare’s plays—often as the prologue or epilogue.

4. A Midsummer Night's Dream Flower Quote: About Marriage

"But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness."

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act I Scene I Lines 76-78

The Duke of Athens urges Hermia to marry by comparing a woman to a rose that is used for a purpose. He says that the flower is much happier by being plucked at the height of its beauty and distilled into the long-lasting beautiful scent or rose perfume. He goes on to suggest that the rose that lives its whole life without being picked is like a single woman, who, although blessed, lives and dies alone.

Theseus's Speech to Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Theseus, Duke of Athens says this to Hermia when she insists that she will not marry the man her father has chosen for her. Hermia states that she would be happier as a nun in a convent than married to her father’s choice of mate.

Theseus is telling Hermia that she will be happier if she marries than if she remains single. There is some obvious sexual and childbearing symbolism here.

A rose that is plucked and distilled into perfume is like a woman who marries and has children A rose that stays on the vine is like a woman who remains single and does not produce a family. The use of words related to deflowering is probably deliberate innuendo.

The Use of Flowers in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Later on in the play, fairies use the perfume and distilled juice of a flower to cast a spell on the humans. The juice of that flower changes the whole story.

In the end, Hermia does get married, but not to the person originally intended. Her best friend gets married, too. So does Theseus, the Duke of Athens. They all live happily ever after.

5. Macbeth Flower Quote: Deception

"Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't"
Macbeth Act I Scene v Lines 75-75

Lady Macbeth urges her husband to make himself appear sweet and harmless in order to hide a violent intent. She wants Macbeth to be as stealthy and secret as a snake that lies on the ground underneath.

The Theme of Deception in Macbeth

Lady Macbeth says this to Macbeth when the king is coming to visit them. She urges him to deceive the king by appearing kind and innocent but keeping a deadly purpose underneath. In fact, they plan to kill King Duncan while he is asleep in their home.

The image is of a very pretty flower that draws someone in to smell and admire it. But on the ground underneath that flower is a coiled snake that can strike immediately, with fatal consequences.

Flower Symbolism in Macbeth

Macbeth will need to pretend to be kind and harmless and never let anyone else know that his intentions are actually evil.

Shakespeare might have based these lines on a poem by Virgil that describes children picking flowers and a “cold adder lurking in the grass” that threatens them.

Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under't

— William Shakespeare, Macbeth

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Jule Romans