Shakespeare uses the concept of a ‘primrose path’ several times through his works – this article explores both the concept and meaning of ‘primrose path’.
Shakespeare’s audience would have been very familiar with the idea, drummed into them in most Sunday sermons, that if you want to go to heaven you will find the path a steep, narrow, thorny uphill climb, whereas the road to hell is, wide, pleasant and easy, and downhill all the way. The idea comes from the Gospel of Matthew 7:13. “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat.”
Shakespeare seems to have liked that idea very much as he uses it several times and creates the metaphor of a flowery road to bring it into focus. He does that three times in his plays and two of them become a primrose path or way. On the surface of it the primrose path is simply a flowery path or road. In the plays it’s a metaphor with a reference to the road to hell. In Hamlet, Ophelia is being lectured by her brother, Laertes, as to how he expects her to behave while he is away at university in Paris. Knowing the reputation for drinking and womanising among students in Paris, she warns him to be careful of preaching to her about virtuous behaviour. “Do not as some ungracious pastors do,” she says, “ show me the steep and stormy way to heaven whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine himself the primrose path of dalliance treads and recks not his own rede.”
Act 2, scene 3 in Macbeth is a short comic scene in which, just after the murder of Duncan, the porter at the gate of Macbeth’s castle is awakened by a loud knocking. As he gets up and puts his clothes on he talks to himself, pretending that it is a knocking on the gates of hell and that he is the gatekeeper. He mentions the lost souls who have arrived there and says that they have followed “the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.”
In Act 4, scene 5 of All’s Well That Ends Well, Lavache, commenting on the excesses of the nobility, says,
“I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a
great fire; and the master I speak of ever keeps a
good fire. But, sure, he is the prince of the
world; let his nobility remain in’s court. I am for
the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be
too little for pomp to enter: some that humble
themselves may; but the many will be too chill and
tender, and they’ll be for the flowery way that
leads to the broad gate and the great fire.”
Growing up in rural Warwickshire, Shakespeare was very familiar with the flora and fauna of his home countryside. He loved flowers, particularly violets, which he used countless times in the imagery of his plays and poems. The primrose is another favourite and here he immortalises the little flower by making it an intriguing and enduring image of the road to hell.
The ‘primrose path’ is such a beautiful image that, although simple, carries a profound message, and it has been pounced on by writers and filmmakers. There are several films with that title and numerous works of fiction, including by Bram Stoker and D.H. Lawrence. Musicians have also used the phrase, as both the name of bands and of albums.
As is always the case with Shakespeare, there is no better way imaginable of expressing something than he does in his plays and poems.