Shakespeare, whose oeuvre was primarily developed between 1590 and 1613, was heavily influenced by these Ancient Greek philosophies as well as the aforementioned religious theologies that were favored during the time. However, in addition to being influenced by these ideas, Shakespeare can be seen as transcending these bounds and coming to unique conclusions regarding nature and its relationship to the human experience. This assertion can be best established by studying the play Hamlet, which is remarkably revealing in terms of these concepts.
The lush vegetation and vibrant floral elements that pervade Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, often become the focus of both solemn rituals, revealing and magnifying the nature of central characters whose thoughts and motives would otherwise remain obscured. Additionally, the metaphor of Denmark as an unkempt garden establishes a distinct relationship between the health of a nation to the well-being of the soil upon which it resides. Lastly, Shakespeare uses his characters’ words and actions to ponder the ability of natural philosophy to fully explain profound subjects such as death and insanity.
One of the most significant incidents occurring in Hamlet, during which symbolic representations of the natural world were used to elucidate the psychological and behavioral characteristics of characters within the play, is the bizarre, beautiful and tragic scene in which Ophelia presents flowers to members of the Danish court. The characters addressed by Ophelia are Laertes, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude. In this almost dreamlike sequence, Ophelia enters – entrenched in a whimsical madness – and sings a song before speaking; “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
Pray love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts… 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. They say a made a good end. ” (IV. v. 173-181) Though the lines leave much ambiguity regarding who receives which flowers, the traditional symbolic meaning associated with each flower provides ample nformation with which to speculate.
Along with the meanings stated explicitly in Ophelia’s speech, “columbines were associated with ingratitude or marital infidelity, fennel with flattery…rue is associated with repentance…[violets] represented faithfulness; daisies could symbolize dissembling seduction. (Greenblatt et al. , 1997). ” Given these guidelines, and the context we have for each character, the recipients of each flower can be inferred. Rosemary is given to Hamlet who, though not present during the scene, is conjured in Ophelia’s mind.
Also, Laertes is given pansies, fennel and columbine to King Claudius, and rue to the Queen. Each of these flowers represents the nature of each recipient and lends insight their behaviors and characteristics. This concept of how the perception of the natural world is altered by personal perception is in line with the Protestant natural philosophy during Shakespeare’s time, in that it encourages human beings to impose their own interpretations upon the natural world.
However, this idea rails against the way that natural philosophy was evolving towards positivism, given its acceptance of subjectivity by way of Ophelia’s bias. The idea is predictive of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism in the late 1800s in a sense, due to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s similar belief that “nature always wears the color of the spirit. (Emerson, 1836). Shakespeare, though influenced by the beliefs and values of his times, also presented ideas that were ahead of his time and perhaps predictive, if not directly influential, on future philosophical and literary traditions.
In addition to the scene in which Ophelia distributes flowers to characters present in the Danish court, the consistent allusions to Denmark resembling an unkempt garden plagued with weeds serve to draw a connection between humanity’s role as cultivators of civilization and their parallel role as stewards of the natural environment. The most direct quote that addresses this concept was spoken by Hamlet while addressing King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. In this scene, Hamlet is responding to accusations that his mourning period for his father has gone on long enough.
In reference to Denmark, Hamlet state, “‘Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely (I. ii. 135-137). ” This metaphor conjures up the image of human society as a garden that must be carefully maintained by those in power. The natural environment, being used to illustrate the rise and fall of the human construct of society, highlights the way that the two are intertwined. The frequent allusions to the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden are also related to this concept.
An example of this is when the ghost is describing the late King’s murder, “Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me. (I. v. 42-47)” This incorporation of a biblical story serves to draw a parallel between humanity’s fall from paradise and the ruination of Denmark, both resulting from a sinful act. This supports the traditional philosophical belief held by the Catholic tradition that defying the will of God leads to disastrous consequences.
Though Shakespeare’s two intertwining philosophies – the relationship between the natural world and human emotion and behavior, and the interdependency that exists between the natural and the built environment – both maintain a significant amount in common with the pre-existing traditions offered by the Ancient Greek, Catholic and Protestant philosophies, one of the starkest ways that Shakespeare deviates from these norms is in his willingness to abandon positivism. This can be seen through examining the ways that characters question their ability to fully comprehend deeply tragic or perplexing phenomena, such as death and madness.
The primary quote in which this sentiment is discussed is during the scene in which Hamlet and Horatio encounter the ghost and seek to rationalize it by drawing from their earthly experiences. However, Hamlet states “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy. (I. v. 167-168). ” This statement runs counter to the idea that all occurrences can be explained using logic and reasoning. While Hamlet could be showing early signs of insanity, the supernatural could actually be present.
This moment of ambiguity is poignant because, regardless of whether the apparition is real or imagined, its appearance still has an immense influence on the play. Another moment that supports this concept is Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death; “Therewith fantastic garlands did she make Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds, Clamb’ring to hand, and envious sliver broke…” (IV. ii. 139-144) The inclusion of floral imagery serves to obscure the nature of Ophelia’s death with a euphemistic illusion of rich botanical splendor. This demonstrates that when logic and reason fail, such as when one is confronted with something as confounding and tragic as a suicide, relying on something beautiful and abstract as a way to cope is preferable to facing the objective truth. In this scene, Shakespeare reaches the conclusion that some truths are not worth divulging if they are harmful or oppressive to the spirit.
In this way, his views truly demonstrate the discordance between Ancient Greek philosophy, specifically Plutarchian, and scientific revolution mentality. In conclusion, Hamlet is an ideal lens with which to view the changing sentiments regarding natural philosophy during the turn of the 16th century. Written between 1599 and 1601, the play is extraordinarily illustrative of the conflicting influences of traditional Ancient Greek Philosophy, enduring Catholic and Protestant theology, and the burgeoning scientific revolution.
Botanical and natural symbolism and imagery highlight his adherence and deviations from these trends in that they draw connections between the natural world and the thoughts and motives of central character, they establish a relationship between the health of a nation to the well-being of the soil upon which it resides, and they highlight the harsh dichotomy between philosophies in terms of how to approach profound subjects such as death and insanity.
Understanding this transitional period in the history of natural philosophy is important because it was a pivotal moment in establishing the modern perspective on scientific and humanistic thought. Observing the way that Shakespeare produced an enduring piece of literature in such a philosophically tumultuous period is encouraging from a modern standpoint, given the contemporary conflict between art and science. Following Shakespeare’s example, unifying traditional philosophical principles with modern empirically driven reasoning is not only possible, but necessary in order to truly express the depth of the human spirit.