SUBROSA
Number 41   March - April 2005
                 

THE PRIMROSE PATH

By Myriam Hu

 

"...But, good my brother
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede."

Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 3

In Southern California we enjoy a winter climate that is similar to that of early spring in England. And, so, from December onwards in the Shakespeare Garden at The Huntington spring flowers burst into early bloom. Primroses, in all their different species and brilliant hues, abound, gaily trailing along the southern path to the Rose Garden Café patio area; just as during an English spring, primroses bloom abundantly in wooded areas, along paths, in fields and meadows. After a long, cold winter, one could see how the youthful Bard might have dreamed that he was in the company of fairies and sprites as they celebrated the coming of spring.

"And in the wood where often you and I
Upon a primrose-bed were wont to lie."

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 1, Scene 1

To Shakespeare and his fellow countrymen, the appearance of the first primrose was a prelude to spring, waking the earth with festive, bright colors.

"Primrose, first-born child of Ver,
Merry springtime's harbinger,..."

The Two Noble Kinsmen, Act 1, Scene 1

As we know, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) occupies a unique position in the world of literature. Today his plays are read and performed more often and in more countries that ever before. The prophecy made by poet and dramatist, Ben Johnson, that Shakespeare, "was not of an age, but for all time" has been fulfilled. Among Shakespeare's many plays, one can find references to approximately forty species of flowers. The primrose seems to find much favor with Shakespeare as he refers to this delicate flower in several of his plays. But, apart from the pleasure Shakespeare clearly took in including the primrose in his works, what do we know about them?

There are some 600 species in the family Primula native to the Himalayas and the cool regions of Southeast Asia, Europe and North America, but the name "primrose" is reserved for P. vulgaris and P. polyantha, the "English primrose." These plants form a loose rosette of leaves and, at bloom time, typically the English primroses produce flowers on strong fleshy stems and bear clusters of yellow, cream, purple, rose, or brownish, often fragrant, flowers. During spring a flower stalk will grow from four to nine inches high, bearing five to twelve-flowered umbel of yellow, funnel-shaped flowers. P. vulgaris is the true primrose of the English woodlands and in some old books called an auricula. It is a perennial plant common in Great Britain and Europe, found in dry meadows, lightly wooded areas, under bushes, hedges, and along the forest edge. Cultivars come in a wide range of colors, with single or double flowers. Here in Southern California, primroses prefer shade to dapple-shade in the cool winter and spring months. In the shady and cooler areas of the garden, the blooming period for primroses can last well into early summer.

Two other primroses have been planted along this Primrose Path, P. malocoides, the Fairy primrose, and P. obconica. Fairy primroses flower on 12 to 15 inch stems in loose whorls of white, pink, rose, or lavender and P. obconica produces large clusters on 12 inch stems in shades of white, pink, lavender and purple. The hairy leaves of P. obconica can cause skin irritation for some people.

Not all of Shakespeare's references to primroses were joyful. At the same time he used the primrose as a symbol of spring, suggesting purity and a certain sweet tenderness, so also was the primrose symbolically associated with fragility and untimely death, as in:

...Pale primrose,
That die unmarried, ere they behold."

The Winter's Tale, Act 4, Scene 4

Or

"I'll sweeten thy sad grave; thou shall not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose"

Cymbeline, Act 4, Scene 2

Other negative allusions to the primrose can be found in some of his other works. In Hamlet, the phrase seems to symbolize worldly pleasure and corruption leading to a deadly end. Here in Hamlet Ophelia is acknowledging the advice of her brother, Laertes:

"I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede."

Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 3

And once again, Shakespeare chose this sweet flower to describe the downward path of evil-living in Macbeth. When the old porter at the gate heard knocking at the entranceway, he shouted and swore at the unwelcome visitors, Macduff and Lennox.

"I had thought to have let in some of all professions, that go to the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire."

Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3

Here Shakespeare is using the primrose as temptation leading to hell and damnation.

It was Shakespeare who coined the phrase, "primrose path." His intent was to put a label on a way of life devoted to irresponsible hedonism, and a course of action that is easy or tempting, but hazardous.

Here at The Huntington today, we have redefined Shakespeare's definition so that it pays tribute to the camaraderie that goes on among Docents, Volunteers, and Staff in planting the primroses each year. Visitors who are making their way from the Shakespeare Garden to the Rose Garden Café, exclaim in wonderment at the beauty of the walkway. Our Primrose Path sets the stage for their good time.

Using our definition, there are numerous areas and plantings that could be defined here at The Huntington as Primrose Paths. However, it is in the Shakespeare Garden that we have the real primroses for the enjoyment of all.

Myriam Hu, Rose and Shakespeare Gardens Docent

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