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Love-in-idleness (Viola tricolor) is the flower mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare that inspired romantic love. This wild pansy is known by various other names, including johnny-jump-up and heartsease. (See Viola tricolor for the botanical article about this plant.) The word pansy derives from the French pensees, meaning 'thoughts'.
In A Midsummer Night's Dream
The love-in-idleness was originally a white flower, struck by one of Cupid’s arrows, which turned it purple and gave it its magic love potion. When dripped onto someone's eyelids this love potion causes an individual to fall madly in love with the next person they see. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare uses this flower as a plot device to introduce the comical disturbance and chaos of love, but also to highlight the irrationality of romantic love. In the end, the love-in-idleness nectar is used to restore all romances in the play to their original states (including Demetrius' prior affections for Helena before he turned to Hermia.)
Love-in-idleness is another name for the European wild pansy, Viola tricolor, which naturally occurs in white and purple colors. According to Roman mythology, the wild pansy turned into the Love-in-idleness as Cupid shot one of his arrows at the imperial votaress, but missed and instead struck it. As Cupid is the god of desire, affection and erotic love, the flower’s juice received the trait, to act as a love potion. Its name relates to the use of the flower, as it is often used for idleness or vileness acts. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Love-in-idleness is especially used in relation to the theme of love. In Act II and III, Oberon’s and Puck’s intervention with the magic love potion of the flower, they can control the fates of various characters, but also speed up the process of falling in and out of love, so that the actual romances of the lovers and their love itself appears to become very comical. Shakespeare uses the flower to provide the essential dramatic and comical features for his play. Besides that the love potion gained from the flower, does not only interfere with the lovers fates, but also gives the play structure as it affects the plot of the lovers romances drastically, as it at first upsets the balance of love and creates asymmetrical love among the four Athenian lovers. The fact that this flower introduces magical love to this play creates the potential for many possible outcomes for this play.
Effect on character and plot
Another case of the use of the love potion in A Midsummer Night's Dream is when Puck misplaces the potion in Lysander's eyes instead of Demetrius's eyes, who sees Helena. As an effect of that, Lysander’s and Hermia’s love is disturbed. Although later in the play Puck manages to place the love potion in the right lovers eyes (Demetrius who then see Helena), peace is not restored until the love potion is also applied to Lysander, who then sees Hermia. Within the meantime the lovers held up speeches, trying to explain and justify their love as rational and consistent as possible, not realising that their normal thinking made them only more absurd. Here love is depicted as a sort of benevolent affliction. Shakespeare presents love to be something contradicting to one’s normal feelings and ideas. However he also depicts the fact that those can lead to foolish and hurtful things and present the idea that love can also end in tragedy. The play shows that love can be a source of comedy as easily as of tragedy and therefore show that the power that the love potion from the Love-in-idleness inherits is beyond the comprehension of the fairies and mortals.
The effects of the love-in-idleness can be very dramatic and tragic, no matter if the intentions were right. The play reaches its point at which Demetrius and Lysander are trying to kill one another. Although Hermia and Helena are not trying to kill one another, they are suffering from the rejection of their lovers and considerable verbal abuse. However this still happened at a very comical level as the lovers were not aware of their situation. Again the more they were trying to present the dramatic side of love, the hate, jealousy and anger, the less they became serious and so their anger turned unreal. In the end love is not denied and the lovers are back together. Nevertheless, Shakespeare ends the lover’s story as a comedy, with the inclusion of several tragic and dramatic moments. This is supposed to show that love can be a source of comedy as easily as of tragedy and therefore show that the power that the love potion from the Love-in-idleness inherits is beyond the comprehension of the fairies and mortals.
In The Taming of the Shrew
Shakespeare mentions it in his play The Taming of the Shrew where Luciento claims he found the effect of love-in-idleness - alluding to its qualities to simulate the effects of love.
O Tranio! till I found it to be true,
I never thought it possible or likely;
But see, while idly I stood looking on,
I found the effect of love in idleness;
And now in plainness do confess to thee,
That art to me as secret and as dear
As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was,
Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,
If I achieve not this young modest girl.