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William Shakespeare, master naturalist

Susan and Biff Andrews

The Bard was born on April 23, 1564 and died on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616. Accordingly, many, many people around the world — millions by some estimations — wear a sprig of rosemary to remember him. There’s a reason it’s rosemary.

Poor Hamlet! He returns from university because of his father’s death to find that his mother has already re-married to his uncle, who has stolen the throne from Hamlet. A ghost, his father, tells him he was murdered by his brother. Then his girlfriend, Ophelia, tells him her father won’t let her see him. He’s lost his father, his mother, his inheritance and his girlfriend all at once. He feels that the world is “an unweeded garden, gone to seed.” By Act V, Ophelia has gone nuts, and is observed walking disheveled through the court passing out twigs and chicken bones as if they are flowers. And this is where Shakespeare’s naturalism comes to the fore.

Each flower has a symbolic meaning. Everyone knows that a red rose symbolizes love. But few people know that a yellow rose stands for friendship. The most meaningful plant in the play “Hamlet” is rosemary. Ophelia gives her brother and father sprigs of rosemary with the line “There’s rosemary— that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love — remember!”

Hence the tradition of wearing rosemary on April 23.

Then there are “pansies — that’s for thoughts.’ Fennel and columbines are aimed at Gertrude and Claudius, as they symbolize frailty and flattery. Violets are aimed at Ophelia’s father Polonius as they are brief and fragile. She says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.” She gives her brother some rue (bitterness, sorrow, and repentance,) then notes that she “must wear her rue with difference.” Daisies, too, are given as a symbol of innocence.

Shakespeare and his audience knew their flowers, and their meanings.

For you who love any Shakespearean play or poetry, it might be a good time to plant some rosemary. Plants are easy to grow, perennial and tasty. You could get arguments on both sides of the question of whether it’s better with chicken or pork. Find a semi-shaded nook that doesn’t want or need tilling, dig a hole and insert the plant. Water it. It will furnish you good taste for years to come.

And show good taste on April 23.

SUSAN and BRADFORD “BIFF” ANDREWS are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.