When Ophelia loses her mind in Act IV, Scene v, she starts handing out flowers to everyone around her. Sure, she talks directly about the symbolic meaning of those flowers, but what's also important is who might be getting these flowers.
There's rosemary, that's for remembrance.
Pray you, 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 of grace o' Sundays. 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. (4.5.199-201, 204-209)
Fennel symbolized strength and praiseworthiness, columbine symbolized folly, daisies symbolized innocence, and violets symbolized faithfulness and modesty. So which flowers belong to which characters? Does Ophelia give the rosemary (for remembrance) to an invisible Hamlet, praying he hasn't forgotten about her? Does she give the rue (another word for regret) to Gertrude, who may be regretting her hasty marriage to Claudius?
And if she's with-it enough to match the right flower to the right character, how crazy is she, really?
Imagery and Symbols - Flowers
In Act 4, Ophelia dies (the method of her death is left ambiguous) and Gertrude describes her death: “Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,/ When down her weedy trophies and herself/ Fell in the weeping brook”. In the process of Ophelia’s mad ravings and curious engrossment with picking flowers, she leans on a branch which breaks and falls into a brook along with her flowers. The image of Ophelia with “Her clothes spread wide” and “mermaid like” while gently floating along the soft current is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful pieces of imagery in the play. One can only imagine the “weedy trophies” (flower petals) gently floating along side her as she gracefully, like a snow angel, sings hymns and pleasant melodies. Perhaps she was completely unaware of the fact that her t”hat her garments, heavy with their drink” would pull her into the bottom of the brook, or maybe she felicitously welcomed death and had no will or desire to revolt against the nature of the current. The scene is undoubtedly one of unquestionable beauty, awe, and amazement.
The imagery of Ophelia’s death speaks so much of her purity and innocence, that it easy to see her death as completely natural and untainted. However, in retrospect and in sharp contrast, it is one of the most tragic and depressing deaths in the play. We witness Ophelia’s troubles and the extreme external pressures given by the men who have wronged her (Polonius, Hamlet) and it is easy to sympathize with Ophelia. Her insanity is understandable, and given this it is highly likely that Ophelia had taken her own life by letting herself drown with the current.
A Digression on the Symbolic Meaning of the Flowers Ophelia hands out
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, is the symbol of flattery. At this point, Ophelia walks to the King, and while handing him some fennel, says, "There's fennel for you and columbines." That's a jab to the King! The audience in Shakespeare's time would have understood that to mean flattery and male adultery and foolishness, because once you pick fennel, it would wilt so quickly. She knew that the new King loved flattery. An old saying is "Sow fennel, sow sorrow."
Columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, is the symbol for male adultery and ingratitude and faithlessness, and Emblem of Deceived lovers. It was also the symbol for foolishness. It was kind of an amusing type of thing for men, which was the old double standard in those days. It was brave of her to first flatter the King and then accuse him of foolish adultery. A very frightening thing, when we remember that the King has the power to take her life.
Rue, Ruta graveolens, means adultery and genuine repentance of all transgressions for women and everlasting suffering. Rue is very bitter. Ophelia then walks over to the Queen and says, "There's rue for you; and here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace a Sunday's. O, you must wear your rue with a difference." Note that rue was the major cause of abortion in its day, which is also shy it was tied in with adultery. So she insults both the Queen and King to their faces, in front of witnesses.
English Daisy, Bellis perenis, means Innocence. Ophelia then sees a daisy and says, "There's a daisy," and she picks it up, looks sadly, and then puts it back. In effect she is saying, "There is no innocence here."
Sweet Violet, Viola odorata, is the symbol for faithfulness or fidelity. Then Ophelia says, "I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died." So what is she telling the King and Queen? About their faithfulness and integrity?
This was very confrontational and brave to say, for this young lady. Most people now do not know about flower symbolism and how important it was to the story. That's unfortunate, for so much is missed and unappreciated. Ophelia knew exactly what she was doing when she handed out flowers in this scene.