Share this page

Shakespeare’s Favourite Flowers: The Pansy

Librarian Mareike Doleschal discusses the role of the pansy in Shakespeare and Victorian flower books.

Mareike Doleschal
Pansies from Shakespeare title page.jpg
Title page of the book Pansies From Shakespeare, published in 1898. Image courtesy of Katharina Kaiser.

Have you ever wished there was a magic potion that could make someone fall in love with you? In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon and Puck create a love potion out of pansy juice and put drops of it on the sleeping Demetrius’s eyes to make him fall in love with the first person he sees when he wakes.

In Hamlet, a distressed Ophelia distributes pansies, telling those around her: “And there is pansies; that's for thoughts” (Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5). Why does poor Ophelia associate the pansy with thoughts? The name pansy derived from the French word for thought, pensée.

Physicians and herbalists during Shakespeare’s time were full of praise for the pansy’s medical properties. John Gerard recommended the flower for treating inflamed lungs, scabs and “itchings of the whole body.”[1] Pansies, according to Gerard, could also heal ulcers.[2]

The pansy as we know it today looked different in Tudor times. In 16th century England, the flower was also known as “heartsease.”[3] Unlike today’s pansy, the blossom was of a single colour. It wasn’t until 1839 when a gardener, William Thomson, created the pansy showing the three famous blotches on its petals by crossing three different flowers. The new flower enjoyed immense popularity when introduced to the public. People held pansy shows, built greenhouses, and at the height of the pansy passion, there were four hundred varieties of this flower. Although the pansy never reached the peaks of popularity as the orchid or ferns, the pansy was in the Victorian language of flowers only second to the rose. The pansy was a popular choice for ‘tussie mussies’, the Victorian name for floral bouquets comprising flowers and herbs. People wrapped their floral offerings in doilies. Pansies were assigned secret meanings such as “I am thinking of you or I have thoughts of you.”[4]

Pansies from Shakespeare Sixth and Seventh Day.jpg
Illustrations of pansies in Pansies From Shakespeare. Image courtesy of Katharina Kaiser.

The pansy also featured heavily in book illustrations, such as in Pansies from Shakespeare, published in Boston in 1898. The pansies in the title are used as a synonym for thoughts. The book includes Shakespearean quotes that are meant to stimulate reflection. Each page is titled the First day, Second day etc. So the purpose of this little book was to encourage the reader to pick it up each day of the month and engage with Shakespearean thoughts, such as "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much" (Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2 Scene 1). Coloured illustrations of pansies decorate almost every page. The artist is unknown, as is often the case with floral books of the 19th century. The book is also rare. Having checked various union catalogues, including world cat, I only found one copy of this book in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Unfortunately, the Trust doesn’t have a copy of this scarce floral Shakespearean gem, and it is something I shall be looking out for when browsing rare book dealers’ catalogues. I am very grateful to Katharina Kaiser for lending me her delightful book.

Victorian book illustrator Jane Elizabeth Giraud included the pansy in her visual interpretation of Ophelia’s monologue, beginning with the lines:

"There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray,

love, remember. And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts."

Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5

Rosemary illustration by Giraud
A bouquet featuring a pansy in Giraud's The Flowers of Shakespeare (1845)

To the left of those lines, Giraud included a coloured illustration of a cross. Is the artist alluding to Ophelia’s dead father? It could also be interpreted as foreshadowing Ophelia’s tragic demise. Giraud placed the pansy in the centre of her floral arrangement and grouped the other plants mentioned by Ophelia around it. Perhaps the Victorian passion for this plant influenced Giraud’s composition.

The pansy also appealed to artist Walter Crane. His interpretation of Ophelia’s words differs from Giraud in many ways. Unlike Giraud, his concern isn’t botanical accuracy but the figure of Ophelia. He dedicated seven coloured plates in this book, Flowers from Shakespeare’s garden: a posy from his plays (1909) to Shakespeare’s tragic heroine. He accompanies a thoughtful looking female figure, clad in pansy petals from head to toe, with the line “and there is pansies; that’s for thoughts.”

A female figure clad in pansies in Walter Crane's Flowers from Shakespeare’s garden: a posy from his plays (1909)

In late Victorian and early Edwardian flower books, such as Walter Crane’s, flowers became associated with women, sometimes with children. In addition to the personification of plants, we can also observe flower books becoming increasingly shorter: there is less text and more imagery. Despite all these developments, one aspect of flower books remained constant. It is a shared passion to visualize Shakespeare’s words and bring them to life through artistic interpretation. These books offer us an insight into Victorian trends and preoccupations. The craze for flowers declined around World War One. Shakespeare, however, continues to inspire artists to this day.

With thanks to Katharina Kaiser.

Recommended blogs

See all blogs