Pale Primroses: the Folklore of Shakespeare

The Shakespeare Institute Garden is resplendent with bright Spring flowers and despite the April rain, they persist. Delicate in appearance, they are hardy reminders of the rebirth of sleeping nature.

Shakespeare rarely mentions a plant’s name without wishing to evoke the folkloric or proverbial associations that go with it. The cyclical nature of plant life coincided with the lives of the Elizabethan people in their calendar festivals. It is not surprising then that a living connection between plant and human life was established in many aspects of plant lore.

With regards to Spring flowers, behind the bright a beautiful colours lies many a dark piece of folklore. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Sir Thomas Overbury, describing the ‘Fair and Happy Milkmaid’ observed:

Thus lives she, and all her care is that she may die in the spring time, to have store of flowers stuck upon her winding sheet.

Young ladies, best to die in Spring so you have ample flowers to bedeck your grave. Nice.


The primrose, especially, was a common symbol of death in young women. Perdita, in The Winter’s Tale, speaks of:

…pale Primroses

That Dye unmarried, ere they can behold

Bright Phoebus in his strength (a maladie

Most incident to maids)

The reference in this lovely speech is to chlorosis – the green sickness, or maid’s malady, which, until as late as the 19th century was often fatal. There was a legend that young unmarried girls who died from this anaemia – of which one sign was a yellow-green complexion – were turned into primroses. In Herrick’s Poems we find the following reference:

Virgins, time past, known were these,

Troubled with Green-sicknesses,

Turn’d to flowers: stil the hieu

Sickly Girles, they beare of you.

With the frequent mention of this illness in literature one can only assume that death accompanied by chlorosis was common. Shakespeare used this vivid piece of imagery – the early spring flower with anaemic appearance, which dies before the coming of the summer sun – as the perfect melancholy symbol for those maidens who died before their time. In Act 4 Scene 2 of Cymbeline, Arviragus, believing Imogen dead, says:

With fairest flowers

While summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,

I’ll sweeten thy sad grave; thou shalt not lack

The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose…

When a girl died unmarried, a maiden’s garland of flowers was carried in the procession and afterwards hung either over her seat in church, over her grave, or in the chancel – as a token of purity and virginity. It was very unlucky to remove these garlands, or break bits from them. As they decayed naturally the fallen pieces were gathered up and buried in the church yard. The word ‘crants’ used by Shakespeare in Hamlet, is an old Dutch word for a garland or wreath, retained by the Saxons.

Two hundred year old maiden crants from Minsterley in Shropshire

If the funeral occurred when natural flowers could not be had, evergreens and artificial garlands and wreaths made from paper flowers were used. In some places they were made of bay leaves and rosemary. Belarius in Cymbeline mentions that:

The herbs that have on them cold dew o’ the night

Are strewings fitt’st for graves.

It was a matter of custom to also cover the bridal bed with flowers, and when a young unmarried person, male or female, died the corpse was strewed with flowers. They were described as going to their nuptial beds. Gertrude says of the dead Ophelia:

Sweets to the sweet, farewell,

I hoped thou should’st have been my Hamlet’s wife –

I thought thy bride bed to have decked sweet maid,

And not to have strewed thy grave.

In Henry VIII Queen Catherine directs that:

When I am dead, good wench

Let me be used with honour, strew me over

With maiden flowers.

Evocations of burgeoning life bring associations with their polar opposite. The natural powers associated with various images of animal and plant life are primitive, to do with origin, sustenance, fertility, the life cycle and continuity. They are basic and timeless, springing from man’s attempt to control and stimulate the processes of nature. From country to country, region to region and indeed from family to family, certain traditions and customs have been established which bring with them a sense of life as rooted to people and nature, to the land.

One of the things that makes Shakespeare a very English writer is his constant reference to the folkloric beliefs of his day. His allusions to folklore would have been understood by court, city and country populations alike. It was a way of making the meaning behind his words accessible to all and there is hardly an act or scene goes by without a mention to some piece of animal, plant, festive, medicinal, customary point of lore. A quarter of a century ago the Mississippi Folklore Register devoted an issue to Shakespeare in which Philip C. Kolin identified 300 items relating to folklore in Shakespeare’s works. Yet mention of folklore is often dismissed as a quaint, rural and irrelevant element.

Our perception and the importance of folklore in our lives may have radically altered since Shakespeare’s day, but we can see how the backlash of 1980’s greed culture lead to the plethora of new age shops emerging in the 1990s – where you can get in touch with nature by burning sandalwood, sleeping under dream catchers, and listening to whale tapes or Enya. It is a need in many to feel connected to the world as a community where little real connection exists. It is sadly ironic that commercialization has taken over folkloric beliefs making true traditions coarsened and falsified. Professor R D Dorson of Bloomington, Indiana coined the perfect name for it – ‘fakelore’. As the late, great Katherine Briggs pointed out:

This is not legitimate, spontaneous growth which we find in stories handed down from father to son, or in customs that alter as they are practised, it is an ignorant and wilful debasement for the sake of money.

There is one element of folklore which remains strong – the power of storytelling. The beliefs and legends drawn on by Shakespeare and shaped into literature has enriched the folkloric tradition by in turn inspiring future generations of writers. Hence, the story Cap o’ Rushes – becomes King Lear – becomes A Thousand Acres. If we take Alfred Nutt’s definition of folklore as ‘knowledge, gathered and formulated, communicated by word of mouth and actions of various kinds from generation to generation’, we can define Shakespeare’s plays and their allusions to folklore as part of the great folkloric tradition themselves.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian



Briggs, Katharine Mary. Pale Hecate’s Team: an examination of the beliefs on the witchcraft and magic among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and is immediate successors (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962)


Briggs, Katharine Mary. The Anatomy of Puck: an examination of fairy beliefs among Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors (London: Routledge & Paul, 1959)


Dorson, R M. Folklore and Folklife: an introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972)


Dyer, T F Thiselton. Folk-lore of Shakespeare; originally published 1883 (New York: Dover, 1966)


Gerard, John (1545-1612), Gerard’s Herbal; the history of plants, ed. Marcus Woodward (London: Senate, 1994)


Muir, Kenneth. ‘Folklore and Shakespeare’, in Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 2 (1881), pp. 231-240


Nutt, A. Trübner. The fairy mythology of Shakespeare. London: D. Nutt, 1900)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s