Weeds and Symbolism in Shakespeare Plays

Shakespeare weed symbolism, meaning of weeds in shakespeare
Nettles (Utrica dioica) by Uwe H. Friese, CC BY 3.0

“ … tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.”

- Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2

As weeds spring up in a garden that is not being tended to, Shakespeare used weeds to represent neglect, devastation and disorder. The above quote from Hamlet’s first soliloquy describes his view of the world, disordered and polluted due to the marriage of his mother and uncle.

In Richard II Shakespeare uses the garden as a metaphor for a nation and the weeds a metaphor for the disorder of war.


… I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.


Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disorder'd and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

- Richard II, Act III, Scene 4

Likewise in Henry V weeds represent war and destruction.

“Why that the naked, poor, and mangled peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unprunèd, dies. Her hedges, even-pleached,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disordered twigs. Her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory
Doth root upon,"

- Henry V, Act V, Scene 2

king lear, flowers, symbolism, weeds, shakespeare flowers
King Lear and his crown of Weeds

In King Lear Shakespeare uses weeds to symbolise not only the disorder of a nation but the instability and mental deterioration of an individual.

"As mad as the vex'd sea; singing aloud;
Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With bur-docks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn."

- King Lear, Act IV, Scene 4

Shakespeare does so likewise in Hamlet when describing Ophelia’s garland.

"There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples."

- Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 7

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

On account of its stinging leaves the Nettle symbolised pain and cruelty. Although more generally considered a weed it was also as an ingredient used in pottage.

The weed Fumitory in Shakespeare's King Lear
Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) by Carsten Niehaus CC BY 3.0

Fumiter or Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis)

Fumitory is still considered a weed though it does have uses in herbal medicine. Its name comes from the Latin fumus terrae, meaning smoke of the earth. There are three possible explanations for this name, the first is that it was believed to have appeared from the smoke or vapour that rose from the earth, the second is that from a distance flowers resemble smoke and the third comes from Pliny, who said that the juice of the plant would bring tears to the eyes, like smoke does.

Darnel (Lolium temulentum), a weed in Shakespeare's King Lear
Darnel (Lolium temulentum) by H. Zell CC BY 3.0


Darnel (Lolium temulentum)

Darnel is a poisonous weed that is usually found in wheat fields; it bears a close resemblance to wheat and is sometimes referred to as “false wheat”.  The second part of its botanical name comes from the Latin temulent, meaning drunkenness, referring to its intoxicating properties.

Hemlock in Shakespeare's King Lear and Macbeth
Hemlock (Conium maculatum) by Mick Talbot CC BY 2.0

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Hemlock is an extremely poisonous plant. It was used as a form execution in ancient Greece, a concoction of which was used to execute the philosopher Socrates. Due to its poisonous nature Hemlock was often associated with witchcraft:

Double, double, toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark ...

- Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1