In Shakespeare's Hamlet, what is the significance of each flower/weed in Ophelia's garland, and how does that reflect on her life in the play?
The flowers/weeds I'm refering to are the flowers that are found on Ophelia's head when she has drowned, not the flowers that she hands out to Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, there are references to four kinds of plants or weeds woven into a garland Ophelia wears when she drowns. They are buttercups, nettles, daisies, and long purples.
Buttercups are symbolic of humility, neatness and childishness. Those traits that apply to Ophelia first are humility and neatness. Ophelia is very humble, speaking quietly and bowing to the requests of others. She never tries to get her own way, but is subservient and helpful to Polonius (her father) and her King (Claudius). She also tries to quietly return Hamlet's mementos, things he has given her over time. She does not challenge or chide him.
We can infer that she is neat as well. In Act Two, scene one, Ophelia comes to her father having been frightened by Hamlet. As she was in the sewing room, Hamlet appeared greatly disheveled. If she were not herself a neat person, this would not bother her in someone else. She reports that his shirt was unbuttoned, he had no hat, and his stockings were dirty: not pulled up but falling down around his ankles.
O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!(85)
With what, i' the name of God?
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle… (90)
Childishness does not appear until Ophelia goes mad. It is then that she begins to sing little songs, some of them bawdy. She is unkempt and wandering around like a child, giving out what her mind perceives as flowers, when they are really sticks and such.
The second flower mentioned is the daisy. The daisy symbolizes purity, innocence, unfaltering love, beauty, patience, and "simplicity."
Hamlet's sexual innuendos fluster and embarrass Ophelia during the play in Act Three. This would be because of her purity and innocence. The other characteristics that apply to Ophelia are loyal love, beauty and patience. She loves Hamlet and would support him it seems if he did not spend his time driving her away—believing that she has abandoned him. Hamlet calls her beautiful during her burial scene, in Act Five, scene one, line 230:
What, the fair Ophelia!
Ophelia appears patient, continuing to try to speak with Hamlet, or refraining from getting angry with him when he speaks so inappropriately to her. Simplicity may be seen indirectly in Ophelia by comparing her to her father, Polonius. She says what is on her mind and does not engage in pompous dissertations.
Long purples are thought to be orchids that grows in England in the spring and summer. The symbolism associated with orchids that applies to Ophelia is love, beauty, refinement, thoughtfulness, and "mature charm." We have already discussed love and beauty. Ophelia is refined—well-bred and free from vulgarity or coarseness. She is thoughtful of Hamlet, her father, Gertrude, and Claudius. She is a gentle spirit who will do what she can for those around her, even Hamlet's "parents" when they worry about their "son." Her charm is gentle, appreciated even by Claudius who asks Horatio to follow Ophelia when she loses her sanity, to keep her safe.
Nettles are weeds. They symbolize pain. And certainly this has been Ophelia's lot, surrounded by so many manipulative, uncaring men. As a side note, the weeping willow hanging over the water where Ophelia drowns symbolizes forsaken love, what Hamlet has done with Ophelia's love for him: he has forsaken the love and the woman.