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What is a Primrose Path?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2016
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A primrose path is a choice or way of life which looks easy, but carries hidden costs. When someone is taking what others consider to be the easy way out, people might say that he or she is following the primrose path. The term is also used to refer to a situation in which someone is being tricked or deceived, as in “don't let that person lead you down the primrose path.”

Poor primroses get a bad name, for such pretty flowers. This term comes from Shakespeare, a playwright who famously coined a wide range of words and phrases, and who was apparently fond of flowers, judging from the copious flower allusions and metaphors in his works. It first cropped up in Hamlet, in a speech by Ophelia to her brother Laertes in which she accuses him of hypocritically traveling the primrose path while telling her to make hard choices, and Shakespeare used it again in Macbeth, this time as the “primrose way,” rather than the “primrose path.”

The image of a path lined or covered in primroses is meant to be a bucolic idea. Seeing a path strewn with attractive aromatic flowers, one might be tempted to take it, assuming that the path would be pleasant, especially if the alternative was a trail lined with thorn bushes. However, in Shakespeare's version of the primrose path, the choice of the easy way out would inevitably lead to negative consequences, with the allure of the path being deceptive.

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A similar concept is the saying “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Ophelia used the term to caution her brother, warning him that he was being deceived by the primrose path, and telling him that he is being hypocritical. As Ophelia knew, the easiest course of action is not necessarily the best course of action, and the choice to follow the primrose path can lead to complications later. Addressing those problems early on “the steep and thorny way” might be a better course of action, even if it requires effort.

This term is also used to refer to someone who appears to be leading a frivolous or pointless life, as in “she's on the primrose path,” suggesting that the individual in question is in for a fall eventually. While the primrose path might be a pleasant route, some people think that it is ultimately unfulfilling. Someone accustomed to the primrose path might also struggle if he or she encountered problems, because tendency to pursue easy options would leave the person unprepared for difficult situations.

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