In Act IV, Scene IV of The Winter's Tale, Perdita is "mistress o' the feast", playing hostess at the sheep-shearing feast, when King Polixenes and Camillo arrive in disguise. Perdita gives them both flowers, accompanied by the following short speech:

Give me those flowers there, Dorcas. Reverend sirs,
For you there's rosemary and rue; these keep
Seeming and savour all the winter long:
Grace and remembrance be to you both,
And welcome to our shearing!

But it doesn't end there. She and Polixenes, along with Florizel and Camillo, talk at length about flowers for the next 60-odd lines. (I won't quote all those lines here, since the full text of the play is freely available and easy to find online, for example here.)

When I saw The Winter's Tale performed in the theatre, this conversation was actually cut out, as were some later sections of the sheep-shearing feast in this very long scene. But I remember hearing that the conversation about flowers had some special significance and symbolism relating to the plot.

Is there more to this conversation than just idle chat about flowers? If so, what is the hidden meaning and/or symbolism?

  • I haven't read or seen the play, but does there need to be symbolism? – Shokhet Feb 16 '17 at 4:27
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    @Shokhet It's pretty reasonable to presume that adding 60 lines about flowers has some meaning. – Aza Feb 16 '17 at 5:30
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    There was an Elizabethan "language" to flowers in which various species were assigned specific meanings, e.g. rosemary = remembrance. There are many "cribs" to the other big flower scene in Shakespeare (Hamlet IV, ii) on the internets, such as this one: hamletdramaturgy.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/ophelias-flowers I'm sure a JSTOR search would turn up a journal article or two on the Winter's Tale scene.... – Kevin Troy Feb 16 '17 at 5:40

The most important element is to introduce Polixines' thoughts on, uh, selective breeding:

You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race:

This is a not-so-subtle commentary on the engagement of Perdita and Florizel: she is the wilder stock, though he can also see her latent nobility. She refuses that kind of breeding, through the metaphor of the gillyvor (carnation).

The rest is a commentary on age and time, "a sad tale best fit for winter". It starts with rosemary and rue, both familiar from Ophelia's own flower speech: rosemary for remembrance, and rue as a homonym for regret. This is a moment where the last kings are passing into age, while Perdita and Florizel are the bloom of youth. Seasonal tropes recur throughout the play, a meditation on the the cycle of growing up, having children, and growing old.

  • I've decided to downvote this answer. You do point out an important element of the Scene IV (Shakespeare's ideas about race, gender, and sexuality). But that is all this answer does; it doesn't tie this passage into the broader themes of the play, or go into depth about any of the other elements of the scene. In sum, this answer doesn't show a lot of effort. – user111 Feb 16 '17 at 18:27
  • I felt that was the goal of the entire last paragraph. – Joshua Engel Feb 16 '17 at 18:54
  • I'm sorry, but your last paragraph isn't detailed enough to accomplish that. – user111 Feb 16 '17 at 19:47
  • OK. I hope somebody comes along and writes a more detailed answer. I have not directed this play; I only played a minor role. So my answers about it will be less detailed than ones about plays I directed or was otherwise intimately involved in. But I think it's helpful enough for me to leave it up, so I won't delete it. – Joshua Engel Feb 16 '17 at 21:14
  • I've upvoted this because it's a decent answer, but it's possible to do much better. It's quite short currently, and could stand to have a lot more detail, supported with more extensive quotes, about both the breeding thing (and its symbolism and irony within the play as a whole) and the age thing. The last sentence in particular could be expanded on, as it's something I don't recall noticing when studying that play. I'd like to encourage you to put more time into this one - it could be the seeds of a really excellent answer. – Rand al'Thor Feb 16 '17 at 23:50

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