“'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, 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.”
— Iago in William Shakespeare’s "Othello," Act I, Scene 3
In this scene, Iago uses garden metaphors to tell his associate, Roderigo, to pull himself together after Desdemona has dumped him for Othello. “Come, be a man,” Iago chides the heartbroken Roderigo.
As a writer and a writing teacher, I am fascinated by the language Shakespeare scripted for his characters. As a gardener, I am intrigued by the Bard’s mention of specific plants and gardening practices. More than 70 plants are featured in the Shakespeare plays that are part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2018 season: "Othello," "Henry V," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Love’s Labour’s Lost." In each play, Shakespeare offers some gardening advice.
In "Othello," 20 plants and garden-related terms are referenced, so what is a take-away lesson for gardeners from the play?
When Iago mentions planting nettles, he’s referring to stinging nettles, a common woodland perennial in England. Shakespeare was familiar with nettles, mentioning them more than a dozen times in his works. It’s not hard to imagine that he had painful first-hand experience with the plant’s sharp spines, each with its own venom sac at the base filled with burning chemicals. In fact, the original name, netel, means needle.
Yet, stinging nettle has its virtues, and Shakespeare and his audiences would have been aware of these redeeming qualities. The name may have come from the fact that nettle plants were once used to make thread. Young leaves of the plant have been used to treat arthritis, kidney and respiratory ailments, as well as to staunch bleeding. An old Irish tradition recommends eating nettles three times in May when the leaves are fresh to purify the blood.
The leaves are high in vitamins and minerals, so they have been used in salads and soups, and to make tea and beer. Cooking or drying the leaves breaks down the stinging fibers and chemical compounds. Mature plants should not be eaten, however, because they develop gritty crystals.
Even if you don’t want to grow stinging nettle for thread, medicine or food, there are other reasons to consider including the plant in your woodland landscape. Nettles are a powerful pollinator plant, hosting the larvae of several butterfly species. They contain a lot of nitrogen, so some gardeners use it for compost or fertilizer. The plant’s chemical compounds have been found to deter garden pests, and nettles have a reputation as an effective companion plant that promotes higher crop yields if planted near vegetables.
In "Othello," Iago seems to contrast the low garden value of nettles with the esteemed lettuce crop. However, if Shakespeare knew about the virtues of nettles — and it’s fairly certain that he did — then mentioning nettles as a companion plant perfectly complements Iago telling Roderigo to forget about Desdemona and to fill his “garden” by finding companionship with “one gender of herbs, or distract it with many.” It’s like someone telling a friend after a recent breakup to get out there and start dating again.
This theory gains traction when considered next to Iago’s mention of hyssop and thyme, two other companion herbs commonly found in Elizabethan gardens. If Iago was a gardener, perhaps he even used nutrient-rich nettles to “manure” his garden with industry.
If Iago was a gardener, then Othello’s villain couldn’t be all bad. And perhaps that’s the biggest take-away lesson from this Shakespeare play, for gardeners and others. Even the “bad guys” have good qualities, too.
I’ll be discussing more about Shakespeare’s plants at the upcoming meeting of the American Association of University Women from 10-11 a.m. Feb. 27, at the Medford library. Also, check my blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.