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Shakespeare's Favourite Flowers: The Marigold

Librarian Mareike Doleschal discusses the history of a beneficial and beautiful flower, the marigold.

Mareike Doleschal

The marigold, also known under the name calendula, has many uses, including culinary and medicinal properties. Calendula extracts are an ingredient in many skincare products, and in Shakespeare’s time, the brightly coloured flower featured in salads, soups and butter. The blossom isn’t unlike that of a daisy or a carnation. Its colour ranges in cheerful hues from bright yellow to fiery red. The common name of the flower, marigold, derived from joining two old English words Mary and gold, a reference to the blossom’s golden colour, which poor people presented to the Virgin Mary instead of gold coins. Others argue the name developed from the Anglo-Saxon word Meargealla.[1]

Marigolds in Gerard's Herbal

The herbalist John Gerard distinguishes between different types of marigolds. In his Herbal, first published 1597, he lists various marigolds and describes their colours. He compares the orange-coloured variety to “saffron” and “pure gold.”[2] In terms of the flower’s medicinal virtues, Gerard recommends the plant for treating various ailments, including toothache, plague and reducing inflammation of “red and watery eyes.”[3] The herbalist Nicholas Culpepper writes in his herbal of 1653 that the marigold is a “herb of the Sun, and under Leo. They strengthen the heart exceedingly.”[4] To the modern reader, this recommendation might seem odd. An astrological herbalist, who believed that the planets influenced the body, this makes perfect sense.

Shakespeare mentions the marigold six times. In two of the six references, Shakespeare uses the flower as a metaphor for death and an ornament for graves. In the other four, he compares the opening and shutting of the petals to the sunrise and the sunset. In the Winter’s Tale, Perdita hands out flowers to the guests attending a sheep-shearing festival:

“Here’s flowers for you:
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,
The marigold, that goes to bed wi'th' sun,
And with him rises,weeping.”
Winter’s Tale
, Act 4 Scene 4

Perdita alludes to the rising and setting of the sun and also the dew that forms on the flowers’ petals in the morning.

In two passages from Cymbeline, and in The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare compares the marigold to the eye:

“And winking Mary-buds begin to ope their golden eyes.”
, Act 2 Scene 3

“Her eyes like marigolds had sheath’d their light,
And canopied in darkness sweetly lay
Till they might open to adorn the day.”
The Rape of Lucrece
, Line 397

In Sonnet 25, he also uses the marigold as a metaphor for the sun and the eye:

“But as the marigold at the sun’s eye.”
Sonnet 25,
Line 6

In these passages, the flower has positive connotations, such as female beauty. These, of course, are based on the flower’s cheerful colour and blossoms that follow the sun’s cycle.

It then comes as a surprise to discover that Shakespeare uses the flower in an altogether different context as well.

In Pericles, the marigold decorates a tomb:

“The purple violets and marigolds
Shall as a carpet hang upon thy tomb”
Scene 15

In Two Noble Kinsmen, he also associates marigolds with graves:

“Oxlips, in their cradles growing,
Marigolds, on deathbeds blowing...”
Two Noble Kinsmen
, Act 1 Scene 1

In the Victorian Era, when the language of flowers, also called floriography, flourished, the marigold was synonymous with grief, despair and mourning. To the Victorians, the marigold was a remembrance flower. Flower dictionaries were common in Victorian libraries, and knowing how to read flowers was seen as a particularly suitable pastime for young women. Flowers were part of popular entertainment: A parlour game played in middle-class households involved blindfolding a party guest who had to pick a flower from a vase. Party guests would “read” the blossom, which they believed shed light on the person's future love or personality.[5] Bad luck if the guest picked a marigold!

Perdita's bouquet in Giraud's The flowers of Shakspeare [sic], 1845

When Victorian artist Jane Elizabeth Giraud created her watercolour bouquet of Perdita’s flowers, featuring lavender, marjoram, mint and the marigold, she wanted to allude to the darker symbolism of the flower. A small sketch placed to the left of Perdita’s lines shows Leontes mourning at the statue of Hermione, the Queen of Sicily, who died of grief. Victorians, well versed in floriography, would have immediately understood the meaning of the flowers expressed in Giraud’s artwork.

Marigold illustration in Shakespeare’s Garden: a posy from the plays (1909)

Nearly fifty years, later artist Walter Crane also decided to illustrate Perdita’s words in his book Flowers from Shakespeare’s Garden: a posy from the plays (1909). Unlike Giraud, Crane no longer links the marigold with death and grief but focuses on the positive connotations that Shakespeare also explored in his works. Here, the marigold is represented by a healthy young woman who shares grace and beauty with the flower, and its petals adorn her face and clothing. Behind her is a radiant sun, representing energy and light, a cheerful accompaniment for the young woman.

As this blog has shown, the marigold is not only beautiful to behold, but the history of this flower also sheds light on different people and times. Marigolds bloom through summer and autumn, giving us ample time to admire this beneficial and beautiful flower.

Marigold in SBT garden.jpg
A marigold in the Tudor knot garden at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.



MACHT, DAVID I. "CALENDULA OR MARIGOLD IN MEDICAL HISTORY AND IN SHAKESPEARE." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 29, no. 6 (1955): 491-502. Accessed May 31, 2021.
[All websites accessed 1st of June 2021]

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