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Shakespeare’s Garden: Pansy

Pansy viola tricolor 2Shakespeare’s pansy is the wild pansy (Viola tricolor) that we call Johnny jump up, not the large flowered hybrid that we know by that name. Also known as love-in-idleness, , heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy,Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, and three faces in a hood, the wild pansy is native to Europe and Asia and was a parent of the large flowered pansies. Wild pansies are perennials or annuals growing up to six inches tall and have a creeping habit with stems that can become lanky. The leaves are oval to heart-shaped and have a wavy margin. The half inch wide flowers have five petals that are purple, blue, yellow and white and bloom from early spring to summer. Plants tend to reseed themselves especially in moist, well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. They are hardy in USDA zones 4-9 but languish in summer heat.

Shakespeare refers to pansies in four plays but using the name pansy once, love-in-idleness twice, and cupid’s flower once.

Ophelia in a state of madness ( Hamlet, act iv, sc. 5, 176) sings as she passes out flowers:

And there is pansies; that’s for
thoughts.

In Taming of the Shrew (act I, sc 1, 155) Lucentio addresses his servant, Tranio, and claims he understands the effect of the pansy which he calls love-in-idleness.

I never thought it possible or likely;
But see, while idly I stood looking on,
I found the effect of love in idleness;

Oberon, King of the Fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream ( act ii, sc. 1, 165), sends his mischievous jester, Puck to obtain the flower so he can use it to take revenge on Tanatia;
Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it “love-in-idleness.”
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

Later in the play (Ibid. act iv, sc 1, 78) Oberon reverses the spell and refers back to the love-in idleness flower, calling it “Cupid’s flower”.

Dian’s bud o’er Cupid’s flower
Hath such force and blessèd power.

The common name, pansy, come from the French, pensee meaning thought and was applied to Viola tricolor because the plant became associated with rememberance. The name “Love in idleness’” creates the image of alover so besotted that he can nothing except think of his beloved. The generic name, Viola, was the Latin name for various sweet-scented flowers such as violets, stocks, and wallflowers.