Iago’s Poisonous Garden

It has to be said; I have really struggled to read Othello. It’s everything that I used to really dislike about Shakespeare when I was at school – unlikeable and fairly interchangeable characters (with a few notable exceptions) giving long wordy speeches to pass the time and gloss over a stagnating plot. Yes, it’s very sad at the end, but I just can’t get on with it.

I especially disliked Iago. I know he’s meant to be the villain of the piece anyway, but he’s so thoroughly unpleasant, scheming and conniving that he has no apparent redeeming features. He’s even unpleasant to his own wife, so a quiet life is clearly unimportant to him. However, he seems to be a man who knows his medicinal plants very well, as two speeches of his demonstrate.

Firstly, in Act 1, Scene 3, he lectures Roderigo on the folly of committing suicide over his unrequited love for Desdemona by saying:

“Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up tine, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry – why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.” (lines 320-325)

Now, as any herbalist worth her gardening gloves would know, this is straight out of Culpeper’s Herbal. Tines, by the way, are thorny weeds – think of the tines of a fork for an idea of what I mean. Hyssop is bitter and used as an expectorant although it can cause seizures in high doses, nettles are a diuretic and useful for “dropsy” (or oedema as we like to call it) and lettuce, quite apart from being nice in a salad, is a cooling food and used for fevers. He’s not daft, this Iago. This was information that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been aware of; Culpeper published his Herbal in 1653, some years after this play, having collated all the available information on medicinal plants he could find. Like much contemporary medicine, there was a strong correlation between illness and astrology, and many plants were said to be ruled by certain planets or having certain genders.

It’s fascinating stuff and yet I’m surprised that a military man would be so at ease with this knowledge. It’s unexpected and to my mind hints at certain nefarious extracurricular activities. We get a further hint of the nature of these activities with his speech in Act 3, Scene 3:

“Look where he comes. Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou owedst yesterday.” (lines 333-336)

Now isn’t this interesting? Poppy, even by Shakespeare’s time, was known to be the source of opium and used to dull pain and aid sleep – see my previous post on Lady Macbeth for another example. Death from accidental overdose would have been fairly common I expect, and I don’t doubt that many people didn’t really live long enough to have to deal with opium’s addictive qualities. I suspect here that Iago is fully aware of what opium was capable of in terms of its toxicity.

Mandragora is the scientific term for the mandrake, a plant with enough stories and legends surrounding it to fill a blog post of its own (I shall get round to writing it one day, I promise). Suffice to say that every part of the mandrake plant is highly toxic; used externally as part of the witches’ “flying ointment” it was hypnotic, hallucinogenic and highly sedative. So far as I can tell, mandrake has always been associated with witchcraft, magic and malice, so it’s a very telling example of what is on Iago’s mind – for it can be nothing more than the death of Othello.

And now, I’m so much more interested in the story than I was earlier. Perhaps if I gave it another go when I was less inclined to hibernation?


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