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What is the origin of primrose used in the idiom primrose path, as defined by the Oxford Online Dictionary?

primrose path

The pursuit of pleasure, especially when it is seen to bring disastrous consequences.
[Lexico]

Merriam-Webster's entry has sexual allusions

a path of ease or pleasure and especially sensual pleasure

The phrase is credited to William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1599-1602)

Ophelia: 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.
(Act 1, 3)

But I did not find any explanation for why primroses were traditionally associated with hedonistic and promiscuous behaviour. They seem so charming, sweet and innocent to me.

enter image description here

The Phrase Finder credits the coinage to Shakespeare but only adds the following

Shakespeare later used 'the primrose way', which has the same meaning, in Macbeth. This variant is hardly ever used now

  • Why did the primrose have such a negative reputation? When did English first use the primrose as a symbol of debauchery and overindulgence?
  • Was William Shakespeare the first to associate primroses with deceit and casual love affairs?
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    I suspect Shakespeare used it because primrose lends itself well to iambic pentameter and, in Hamlet at least, forms a useful alliteration with path. Also the flowers are pretty and inviting. I personally have never heard them being associated with something wicked all by themselves, like the serpent in Genesis.
    – Robusto
    Aug 5 '19 at 12:38
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    @marcellothearcane I think there is more than meets the eye, it cannot be mere chance that Shakespeare chose this flower, his plays were written for contemporary audiences, they had to be "in" with the metaphor. Note also the phrase "reckless libertine". Why specifically a primrose path and not daisy or violet path?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 5 '19 at 13:33
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    In floriography, 'attributed by some to the 17th-Century Turks, but blossoming in the Victorian era' (Interflora), the primrose signifies eternal love (Wikipedia). Aug 5 '19 at 13:38
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    @Mari-LouA "they had to be "in" with the metaphor" Does this have to be the case? I'm no expert, but given he supposedly invented or introduced over 1,700 words (which, presumably, means he is their first written reference), it feels likely that while some/many may have been well known idioms of the day (and he was simply the first to write them down), many others he must have created (and audiences grasped the meaning from their context).
    – TripeHound
    Aug 5 '19 at 13:44
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    It's not clear why primrose was picked for naming this metaphorical path. Perhaps Shakespeare chose the word for alliteration - wordsmith.org/words/primrose_path.html
    – Gio
    Aug 5 '19 at 15:49
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The association between primrose and pleasure comes from its status as an early spring flower, and that flower's association with maidens and pleasure. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from Anglo-Norman primerose, lit. first rose. (Compare primerole, another word that referred to early spring flowers like the daisy, primrose, and cowslip.) The Middle English Dictionary entry gives lots of examples of early usage for primrose.

First, it helps to know that these flowers were eaten. Your question reminded me of a Middle English lyric, Maiden in the Mor, which uses the primerole as a food (mete) consumed by the eponymous maiden:

Welle was hire mete— wat was hire mete?

The primerole ant the, the primerole ant the—

Welle was hire mete— Wat was hire mete?

The primerole ant the violet.

What? Eat flowers? There is a naturalistic edge to this (surviving only on flower), but primrose was also known as a pleasurable, sweet food! In a late medieval cookbook (BL Harley 279), mixing up flowers to eat was delicious (again from the Middle English Dictionary):

a1450 Hrl.Cook.Bk.(1) (Hrl 279)25 : Prymerose: Take oþer half-pound of Flowre of Rys, iij pound of Almaundys, half an vnce of hony & Safroune, & take þe flowre of þe Prymerose, & grynd hem, and temper hem vppe with Mylke of þe Almaundys, [etc.].

(Primrose: take other a half-pound of flower of rice, 3 pounds of almonds, half an ounce of honey and saffron, and take the flower of the primrose, and grind them and temper them up with almond milk.)

So we have flowers, eating, and maidens. Any eroticism is through association with spring and maidens, who are (a) pure and (b) ready for sex, marriage, and/or childbirth. Here is a stanza from the fifteenth century poem Ave Regina Celorum by John Lydgate, where the primrose is used to describe Mary:

Hayle! holy maydyn, modyr and wyfe,

That brought Israell out of captyuyte,

As sterre of Iacob by a prerogatyfe

With the blessyd bawme of thy virginite,

The holyest roote that sprang out of Iesse,

Prymrose of plesaunce, callyd flos florum,

Thou were tryacle ageyne olde antiquite,

Aue regina celorum!

Mary is the primrose of pleasure, the flos florum (flower of flowers). If there is any erotic sense here, it is subsumed under God and Mary's role as the divine maiden, mother, and wife. Still, the connection to pleasure is there, and it appears in other texts. For example, back to the Middle English Dictionary, there is this example from a fifteenth century lyric:

c1450 Excellent soueraine (Dc 95)136 : Farewell prymerose, my plesaunce.

Plesaunce is a common collocation for primrose, perhaps because of the alliteration. So the primrose is a flower of pleasure, either in taste or in other figurative use.

In these and other examples, I find no reference to such pleasure being a negative thing. Given that absence (an an Early English Books Online search mainly revealed references to herbology or to people in positive senses) I suggest that any negativity would be context-dependent. So the notion of the primrose path as negative depends on its context in Shakespeare, not on any quality of the primrose.

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TL;DR: Shakespeare was the first to coin those phrases (or, at least, his is the first recorded use of those phrases), but primrose itself does not have the negative connotations you assert (nor, primarily, do the phrases). The negative outcomes would be from blindly following a path of pleasure.


Starting with your second question, because it has the more definitive answer:

Was William Shakespeare the first to associate primroses with deceit and casual love affairs?

According to the OED, he is the first to coin those two phrases, although, as I argue below, he does not really "associate primroses with deceit and casual love affairs". Its earliest citation for primrose path is 1604 in Hamlet:

Doe not as some vngracious pastors doe,
Showe me the step and thorny way to heauen
Whiles a puft, and reckles libertine
Himselfe the primrose path of dalience treads

Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii

and the earliest citation for the related primrose way is "about 1616" in Macbeth:

Some of all Professions, that goe the primrose way to th'euerlasting bonfire

Macbeth, Act II, Scene iii

Their next citations are both in the latter half of the 18C (1763 and 1781 respectively).


For the second question:

Why did the primrose have such a negative reputation? When did English first use the primrose as a symbol of debauchery and overindulgence?

the answer is less clear: my view is that primrose itself does not have those negative connotations – rather it would be "blindly following the primrose path" that could lead to negative consequences. In support of this view, the OED's entry for primrose path is:

primrose path, n.
a path abounding in primroses; (figurative) an appealing course or route; esp. the pursuit of pleasure which might bring ruin or disastrous consequences (usually with allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet: see quot. 1604).

where I see the primary allusion is to "an appealing course" or "the pursuit of pleasure" and where the "might bring ruin or disastrous consequences" is almost secondary.

As to why a specifically primrose path: while Macbeth and Hamlet are the earliest citations of those phrases, the OED has earlier extended and figurative uses of the word primrose (dating from 1450 and 1590 respectively):

primrose, n
II. Extended and figurative uses.
3. figurative.

a. The first or best; the finest or a fine example of something ; the ‘flower’, ‘pearl’, ‘pink of perfection’ (see pink n.5 3). Also as a term of endearment. Now rare (archaic and poetic in later use).

b. Prime; first bloom, first fruits (of). Obsolete.

So, a hedonist (seeker after pleasure) would be likely to follow a path to "the first or the best" or to someone in their "prime" or their "first bloom" (especially, one assumes, if applied to someone of the opposite sex). The "ruin or disastrous consequences" come from following that path to the exclusion of other concerns.

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    'Shakespeare was the first to coin those phrases' assumes he didn't derive from sources at the time. Aug 5 '19 at 18:06
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    Composers like JS Bach were notorious for XXplaXX borrowing from others' fine streaks of creativity. Aug 5 '19 at 18:35
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    @EdwinAshworth: Which we know because those "others' fine streaks of creativity" are available. Shakespeare may have (and undoubtedly did) borrow from others, but in cases like "primrose path" we don't have a Vivaldi or Scarlatti to point to—so at most we can say he may have done so.
    – Robusto
    Aug 6 '19 at 12:23
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    @Edwin Ashworth; Actual John Bale made reference to "primrose peeresses" which means Primrose without compare during his description of of the King's (HENRY VIII) lovers in his writings. John Bale died some 40 years before Hamlet was written.
    – Brad
    Aug 7 '19 at 13:41
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    @Brad The OED has that citation under primrose peerless from "Mysterye Inyquyte P. Pantolabus" in 1545, as well as an earlier one by J. Skelton from "Goodly Garlande of Laurell" in 1523.
    – TripeHound
    Aug 7 '19 at 13:53
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The modern audience may be being leading themselves up the Primrose Path

The question is why are primroses traditionally associated with hedonistic and promiscuous behaviour

The phrase is credited to William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1599-1602)

In my opinion it is most likely that the Primrose in question is not of the variety Primula vulgarise but Human vulgarise.

The Primrose family were predominant supporters of Crown and held various senior position throughout the 17th & 18th centuries.

Gilbert Primrose was one of the Ministers of the reformed church at Bordeaux,and afterwards of the French church in London. He was appointed Chaplain to King James VI of Scotland and Charles I of England. In 1628 he became Dean of Windsor. Another grandson was James Primrose who was Clerk of the Privy Council in Scotland. Clan Primrose Archibald Primrose, 1st Earl of Rosebery was in fact a Gentlemen of the Bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark (later George 1st)Wikipedia Although this was sometime after Shakespeare. I use it to depict the prominence of the Primrose family.

Certainly the Primrose family would have been know of, if not known by, Shakespeare and his audience.

During his youth James 6th & 1st was involves with Esmé Stewart, Sieur d'Aubigny, future Earl of Lennox, Lennox was a Protestant convert, but he was distrusted by Scottish Calvinists who noticed the physical displays of affection between him and the 15 year old king and alleged that Lennox "went about to draw the King to carnal lust. "Throughout his youth, James was praised for his chastity, since he showed little interest in women. After the loss of Lennox, he continued to prefer male company.

James became obsessed with the threat posed by witches and wrote Daemonologie in 1597, a tract inspired by his personal involvement that opposed the practice of witchcraft and that provided background material for Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth.wikipedia

Now at this point we can see the links Between, The Primrose family, King James and Shakespeare.

At which point it is not a great leap of imagination to surmise that the Primrose we are following is not a flower. However, up to this point I have no proof of my theory except for Shakespeare Himself. AS Bernard Harris writes in his article Dissent and Satire shakespeare-dissent-and-satire

An England about which Shakespeare speaks only obliquely,

Gilbert Primrose a pastor in France and London

Ophelia:

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.

So at the time of Hamlet being written we have a young Pastor, son of the Kings surgeon a member of the Royal Household. I believe Shakespeare used a pun with the word Primrose to accuse, or perhaps jokingly reference, young Primrose (as I am sure they would have known each other), of have loose morals and indulging in multiple sexual relationships. Using a play on the words of John Bale written some years earlier where he describes The King John's Lover as a Primrose without Compare. The king used Beckett (his chancellor ) to shower his love with presents and tokens of his love. Later the King "Got Religion" and repented. However as we know the story ends with the death of Beckett. This text is bound to be know by the audience of the time and In fact Shakespeare's patron Henry Carey is liked with this text by Bale. Also interestingly, Henry Carey was rumoured to be the Illegitimate son of the King Henry VIII.

Later Shakespeare uses the term Primrose way (McBeth) as opposed to Primrose Path. It is reasonable to conclude that path and way refer to a journey. So now we have a use for Primrose, a pursuit of pleasure and a journey through life which leads to an ending of some regret

Have we at last found the Primrose Path Shakespeare alludes too?

Later Primrose became a member of the Royal Household in his own right and a Cannon of Windsor. Note There does seem to be some discrepancy about his age wikipedia suggest he was born in 1580 whilst the National Portrait Gallery states 1566/7.NPG

John Bale Primrose without compare

libertine Cambridge English Dictionary noun [ C ] formal disapproving UK ​ /ˈlɪb.ə.tiːn/ US ​ /ˈlɪb.ɚ.tiːn/ ​ a person, usually a man, who lives in a way that is not moral, having sexual relationships with many people

Gilbert Primrose (minister) Gilbert Primrose D.D. (1580?–1641) was a Scottish Calvinist minister, a pastor in France and London. Born about 1580 into a Perthshire family, he was son 4 KB (666 words) - 06:11, 1 September 2018 Dictionary of National Biography.

Gilbert Primrose (surgeon) Gilbert Primrose (c.1535 -18 April 1616) was a Scottish surgeon who became Surgeon to King James VI of Scots and moved with the court to London as Serjeant-Surgeon

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    I think your answer is very clever and original but I think you're barking up the wrong tree.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 5 '19 at 17:00
  • @Mari-Lou A up dated
    – Brad
    Aug 5 '19 at 17:59
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    That paragraph about Lennox confused me; is there some direct connection between Lennox and the Primroses, or are you just illustrating the general libertinism of James VI's court?
    – MJ713
    Aug 6 '19 at 22:42
  • @ MJ713 I am attempting to illustrating the general liberalism of James VI's court as you correctly assumed. One thing I have not done in this short text is to ask the reader to take into account this is a relatively short time before Cromwell and his extremely Puritan regime.
    – Brad
    Aug 6 '19 at 22:57
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First of all, you need the context and not just Ophelia's words alone, but (1) those her brother, Laertes, that precede them, and (2) the religious context of the time in which the play was written.

(1) Laertes is off to university, and students then, as now, specialise in getting into trouble: money problems, fighting and sex, romantic or otherwise (unlike today, of course). Just read Chaucer's Miller's Tale! Laertes is going to get a long lecture of his own from his dad, Polonius ("...to thine own self be true...").

(2) Educated aristocratic young people of the time would have been deeply steeped in the bible, which is full of fearsome warnings about easy roads to ruin and the more difficult and painful paths of righteousness.

Take Proverbs 5, verse 5. It is to a boy rather than to a girl. It warns about getting involved with a woman, reminding that parts of the bible itself are not free of prejudice about women:

For the lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil: but her latter end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her feet take hold on Sheol; so that she findeth not the level path of life: her ways are unstable and she knoweth it not...

It goes on to warn against being tempted by her and urges his to listen to his words. But note that he is not being warned against all women: just foreign ones.

Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.

The Hebrew apostle, Matthew, attrubutes such a warning to Jesus in Chapter 7 of his gospel.

Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many be they that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate, and straightened the way, that leadeth to life."

Laertes is trying to warn Ophelia against being seduced by Hamlet.

Then if he says he loves you,

it fits your wisdom so far to believe it

as he in his particular act and place

may give his saying deed; which is no further

than the main voice of Denmark goes withal...

He continues

If with too credent ear you list his songs

Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open

To his unmaster'd importunity....

So, all the way back to biblical times, women have been regarded (by men) as dangerous to men. The idea is fixed in the Old and New Testaments, and was a common theme for Sunday sermons "as some ungracious pastors do". She is treating her brother with witty irony. Primroses are chosen, I suspect, because they are a wild and very pretty spring flower, easy thoughtlessly to follow, and to stop and slow down(dally). And the word 'dalliance' did have the amorous connotation of Ophelia's remarks here.

Sex has already been raised by her brother's warning her not to "open your treasure". So it is in the air. However, the word 'dalliance' itself is broader than that. It is true that some online dictionaries (such as the Cambridge online English, appear to give great weight the the sexual aspect of the word. But if you look at a fuller dictionary, you get a broader picture of what it might have meant to people in Shakespeare's own day. The full Oxford English Dictionary starts with

1 conversation, converse, chat (of a familial kind)

2 Sport, play .... (and goes on to add) esp of an amorous toying or caressing. Flirtation; often, in a bad sense, wanton toying

3 Idle or frivolous action

4 Waste of time or trifling

The citations in the century or so around Shakespeare seem to range between flirtation and sex, and that is surely what is in the air here. But, as so often, the attribution of hedonism to the primrose to hedonism seems to be yet another Shakespeare contribution to English discourse.

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