What is a passage from Hamlet that requires an appreciation of a cultural or political aspect of Elizabethan life to understand? What aspects of Elizabethan life need to be understood to gain a full appreciation of the lines?
Knowledge of Elizabethan beliefs, history, and cultural conventions will enhance your understanding of almost every aspect of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. One example of this is Ophelia's flower speech in Act IV Scene 5, which uses many traditional aspects of flower symbolism. Each of the flowers Ophelia hands out (or pretends to hand out -- we do not have precise stage directions) had an important cultural significance:
- Rosemary indeed was used as an aid to memory. It was carried by bridesmaids and also by mourners at funerals.
- Fennel represents flattery and empty words.
- Columbine represents deception and ingratitude.
- Rue represents bitterness and sorrow.
- Daisies stand for innocence and purity.
- Violets stand for premature death.
When Ophelia hands out the flowers, she is using their symbolism to speak truth to power; although she seems insane, her flowers are actually a devastatingly accurate condemnation of the moral faults of the people to whom she hands them.