“Rosemary for remembrance” is a phrase that most often references the character Ophelia’s words in William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. The association of rosemary with remembrance, and with funerals, mourning or celebrations, predates the bard’s play. Undoubtedly, Shakespeare’s words have proven memorable and influential, as shown by the writings of others. Interestingly, though, in a scientific context, rosemary and memory do share important connections.
Shakespeare’s famous scene from Hamlet features an increasingly unbalanced Ophelia, who talks, sings, and babbles about her father’s death, to her brother, Laertes. Interestingly, the exact quote from the play doesn’t include the phrase, “rosemary for remembrance.” Rather it is: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.”
There are many interpretations of this scene, but since it occurs shortly before Ophelia’s death, a number of scholars believe that the idea of “rosemary for remembrance” is of somewhat lesser importance. Instead, they argue that Shakespeare uses the herb to allude to the common convention of placing it on the bodies of the dead. In this way, he is able to foreshadow Ophelia’s impending demise.
Another interpretation that might make sense is that rosemary is a fragrance that clings. Ophelia’s absence is felt almost as much as her presence, and it partially drives the actions of her brother. She resembles the tenacity of rosemary’s aroma, and the way it lingers.
Even before Shakespeare's time, many individuals and cultures assigned meaning to this herb. As mentioned, it could be used in funerals or in the care of the dead. On the other hand, wearing wreaths of rosemary was sometimes the fashion in bridal wear, so it wasn’t always connected with sadness.
This little plant was also thought to repel evil spirits and cure thievery. 15th and early 16th century statesman and writer, Sir Thomas More, specifically ties rosemary to memory in his writing. He writes fondly of it “running” about his garden without cultivation because: “it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and therefore, to friendship…”
Veneration of rosemary has certainly continued. Sometimes references to it are meant to evoke Shakespeare. An Agatha Christie novel, published as both Remembered Death and Sparkling Cyanide, uses the playwright’s quote. Many other literary allusions to rosemary for remembrance exist.
Fascinating recent research may scientifically verify a connection between rosemary and remembrance. Several studies evaluating aromatherapy suggest that the herb actually stimulates memory and may preserve some cognitive function. If these studies are accurate, a sprig of rosemary is not the harbinger of doom that it was for poor Ophelia. Instead, it may be an aromatic preserver of the thoughts people hold dear.