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'The sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets': The Meaning of the Violet in Shakespeare's Plays

Mareike Doleschal explores the appearance of violets in Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, and the flower's enormous popularity during the Victorian age.

Mareike Doleschal

In Twelfth Night, the lovesick Orsino compares the sound of a sad tune to the fast fading fragrance of violets (Act 1 Scene 1). In his melancholic state, Orsino focuses on the transitory nature of violets, whose beauty and smell is as fleeting as the sound of music. Violets appear in early spring, and blooms can last for just a few days.

What does a violet smell like? In his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s perfume called Paris, Normand Cardella, a perfume expert, describes the fragrance as 'powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad. Musically, a violet note would be a minor chord.'[1]

Long before the perfume blogger, herbals and recipe books from Shakespeare’s time also commented on the violet’s sweet and sad fragrance, which was believed to affect the brain.

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A violet in Gerard's Herbal

The herbalist John Gerard, who usually focuses on the medicinal purposes of flowers, makes an exception when it comes to the violet. He not only explains the flower’s beneficial uses but also comments on its use as an ornament: 'For there be made of them garlands for the head, nose-gays, and posies, which are delightful to look on.'[2] In his herbal, he describes many different types of violets. As a medicine, violets have many uses. Gerard recommends violet oil for treating haemorrhoids, and the leaves of violets have cooling and moistening qualities that help with 'making the belly soluble.'[3] Dried violets mixed with water reduces the swelling of the throat, and the seed relieves the sting of scorpions.

In addition to herbals, violets also feature in Tudor recipe books. Tudor housewives used the flower for candying, baking, conserving and making syrups and even in cosmetics.

In the Victorian age, the violet's popularity turned into an obsession. Like the tulip mania in the Dutch Golden Age, when prices for tulip bulbs reached extraordinarily high prices, the violet caused a similar craze in Victorian England. Flowers played a huge role in the lives of Victorians; in particular, women were fluent in floriography, the secret language of flowers. Flower dictionaries were essential in any Victorian library.

Violets were assigned meanings: A white violet symbolised innocence, whereas a purple violet indicated that 'thoughts were occupied with love.'[4] Like the Tudors had done before, Victorians also used violets in food, mainly candies, cakes and pastries, and in everyday life, the flower was a constant visual presence. The flower featured in hatbands, buttonholes and lapels. Violet seller sold bunches at street corners waiting for customers to purchase their delicate bouquets. Queen Victoria, whose favourite flower was the violet, helped to popularise the flower. In her journals, she mentions violets 105 times.[5]

In the 19th century, the violet mania reached its peak. A newspaper article, published during the height of violet mania, reported that a woman preferred going to prison rather than returning a bottle of violet perfume that she stole from a shop.

During this violet craze, botanical artist Elizabeth Giraud published her book The Flowers from Shakespeare (1845). Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays accompany her delicate illustrations of flowers. Violets feature four times in her book more than any other flower. Giraud chose to illustrate lines from Twelfth Night, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. I am sure Giraud was aware of the flower’s popularity, and her illustrations catered for an audience that had an enormous appreciation of this flower.

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Oberon's bouquet in Giraud's The Flowers from Shakespeare

Another subject popular with Victorian was fairies, so it isn’t surprising, Giraud chose to illustrate a quote by one of Shakespeare’s fairies:

'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.'

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2 Scene 1

In this pastoral scene, the king of the fairies, Oberon, describes the place where he will play a trick on the Fairy Queen, Titania. These days Oberon’s list of herbs and flowers has inspired vegetarian cafés, cookbooks and garden centres, but Victorian flower experts focused on the flowers' meanings, and they might have read Oberon’s bouquet as an offering to the Fairy Queen.

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Ophelia's bouquet in Giraud's The Flowers from Shakespeare

In contrast to Oberon’s picturesque fairy setting, the world that Ophelia inhabits is altogether darker. Like Oberon, she also mentions violets, but the flower’s symbolism changes completely.

'There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s

rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it

herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue

with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you

some violets, but they withered all when my father

died...'

Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5

An unkempt and dishevelled Ophelia hands out imaginary flowers to her brother, the King and Queen. Mad with grief over the loss of her father, she says her violets withered when her father died. Here, the flower is associated with death and a young woman’s sorrow over losing a loved one. As violets also symbolised faithfulness, her words carry a double meaning. Perhaps she is also lamenting the loss of faithfulness expressed through the actions of the King and Queen. Later on in the play, Ophelia’s brother mentions violets in connection with her death.

'Lay her i’ th’ earth,

And from her fair and unpolluted flesh

May violets spring...'

Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 1

Giraud chose a white and purple violet for Ophelia’s bouquet, the colour white representing Ophelia’s innocence, a colour symbolism Victorian flower experts had no difficulty deciphering.

A combination of cold winters, changing tastes in fashion, and a fast-developing perfume industry meant that violets’ popularity decreased. By the 1950s, the flower had grown out of fashion. At least we have Giraud’s book to remind us of the violet mania in the 19th century.


Footnotes

[1] https://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/violets
[2] https://www.exclassics.com/herbal/herbalv30139.htm
[3] https://www.exclassics.com/herbal/herbalv30139.htm
[4] https://gardens.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SIGardens_HistBloom_Language_of_Flowers.pdf
[5] https://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/in-search-of-queen-victorias-favourite-flower/

Bibliography

https://gardens.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SIGardens_HistBloom_Language_of_Flowers.pdf
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_flowers
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https://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/in-search-of-queen-victorias-favourite-flower/
https://www.mimimatthews.com/2017/06/19/the-scent-of-violets-perfume-cosmetics-and-crime-in-the-late-victorian-era/
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https://www.bardweb.net/content/readings/twelfth/lines.html
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https://bardgarden.blogspot.com/2014/10/violets-in-shakespeares-works.html
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https://www.exclassics.com/herbal/herbalv30139.htm
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https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/jarmansgarden/derek-jarman-and-gerards-herbal/
https://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/shakespeare
https://recipes.hypotheses.org/tag/violets

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