In Hamlet, Laertes, leaving for France, tells his sister Ophelia to guard her heart against Hamlet. Laertes suggests that Hamlet’s affections are “Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, / The perfume and suppliance of a minute; no more.”
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.
The primrose is a flowering plant of over 400 species, bearing blue, pink, purple, red, white, or yellow blossoms.
Here, Shakespeare’s “primrose path” is the path of ease, indulgence, and pleasure. Ophelia not only listens to Laertes, but also challenges him to heed his own advice. Primroses are perennial though, in this context, they represent fickleness – perhaps “perennial” frivolity?
There are six more references to primroses in Shakespeare’s plays:
So, so: well done, well done:
The violets, cowslips, and the primroses,
Bear to my closet.
Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose…
Henry VI, Part II
I would be blind with weeping, sick with groans,
Look pale as primrose with blood-drinking sighs,
And all to have the noble duke alive.
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
And in the wood, where often you and I
Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie,
Emptying our bosoms of their counsel sweet,
There my Lysander and myself shall meet…
The Winter’s Tale
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bight Phoebus in his strength…
By Vineeta Moraes and Laboni Islam