By Allegra Forbes, IV Form, and Claudia Chung, IV Form
Allegra–“Iago the Gardener”:
A true villain invests time and care into his work, tending to his malevolent deeds tirelessly from whence they bloom in his mind to when they grow to be ripe and succulent. A true villain is as diligent as a gardener, scattering seeds of suspicion where he finds fertile soil, ripping out hindering weeds, irrigating his fields periodically, and even patiently waiting for nature to contribute its share. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, the scheming and fickle Iago proves to be a brilliant gardener, using the entire stage and cast as his plowed field. He is resolute and committed to seeing his deed blossom, but he does not rush the maturation of his intrigue, allowing it the time to flower flawlessly.
Iago’s villainy can be easily compared to a gardener’s labor because of the way that he manipulates human nature to carry out his plan, just the way a gardener plants certain seeds in certain soils so that they may be most fruitful. Iago plants his seeds quite meticulously across the stage, and tends to their growth with almost paternal care. Indeed, Iago is not a criminal, but a villain. That is to say, his work throughout Othello is not one of many delinquencies, committed for greed, ambition, lust or any other temptations that commonly make men into felons. Rather, evil or not, Iago’s deed is extremely close to his heart, as he is planting a garden that he wants to watch thrive. Having honed his scheme to frightening sharpness, Iago declares, “It is engendered. Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (Oth. I.ii.446-7). Here our villain even describes his imminent wrongdoing as a “birth”, a breathing and moving being with a life of its own. This anthropomorphized image of Iago’s malevolence reinforces the malefactor’s fatherly relationship with the deed. Proud of his masterfully created scheme, he releases it upon the world to haunt and devour his victims. It advances like a rapidly thriving vine, which, after a certain point, no longer needs the encouragement of the gardener to multiply and coil itself around everything in its path. Such is the temperament of Iago’s endeavor, which influences nearly all members of the cast and leaves none untouched by this quickly spreading blood stain.
Indeed, Iago’s voracious vine manages to engulf and contaminate even the surrounding vegetation. For example, he need not even plant a seed in Desdemona’s soil, for she is swallowed by the growth of Iago’s suffocating weeds alone. “I pray you be content. ‘Tis but his humor. The business of the state does him offense, and he does chide with you” (Oth. IV.ii.194-6) lies Iago, urging Othello’s lady to not dwell on her husband’s cross temper. As the villain infects Othello with his poisonous remarks regarding Desdemona’s alleged infidelity, the general’s ire pushes his wife into an increasingly passive state of being. As suggested by Iago, she maintains that her husband is not to be blamed for his inexplicably cruel behavior. “Sing all a green willow must be my garland. Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve” (Oth. IV.ii.55-6) weeps a submissive Desdemona. As she is completely pliant to the grief imposed upon her, the general’s wife has come to embody the willow tree of her song. She stands immobile and vulnerable in the midst of Iago’s thriving garden, enduring the abuse of the elements, waiting to be consumed by the advancing vines. Out of genuine loyalty to Othello, she would (and does) stand so until death, trapped and bearing her “garland of willow”. This symbolic funerary wreath demonstrates that Desdemona is willing to bring her sorrow to the grave, never protesting her fate. Indeed, as her weeping willow branches nearly sweep the ground, she is an easy prey for Iago’s ravenous evil.
By the end of the play, Iago has successfully grown a bountiful garden filled with many species of sorrow and torment. His spring has come, and each character is a puppet to the villainous vines, Othello being the favorite marionette. The general’s sense and vision are weak, and he obeys Iago’s tugging strings thoughtlessly. Indeed, Othello ignores the weeping willow tree that shares his bed. He sees a rose in his sheets, a delightful flower that possesses an exquisite delicacy and an enchanting scent. However, this bloom is dressed in thorns, and has an almost excessively passionate coloring to be truly virtuous. Tragically, Iago’s subtle murmurs have sharpened her thorns and enhanced her hue to Othello’s eyes, obscuring the frail and loyal creature beneath. “When I have plucked the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again. It needs must wither. I’ll smell it on the tree” (Oth. V.ii.13-5) decides a despairing Othello. Although, his rose “must wither”, lest it grow more thorns to give him horns, the general’s tone reveals his hesitation to uproot Desdemona entirely from the flowerbed. Indeed, he does not want to eradicate this unrivaled beauty, but simply numb its supposed sharpness. However, Othello’s tangled mind does not allow him to refrain his stifling grasp. He inhales one last breath of her as the weeds that have thrived in him rip Desdemona from the tree. Such is the indomitable strength of Iago’s seeds, which are able to thrive even in the toughest soil, and smother any other living being.
The play concludes as Iago gathers the year’s fruitful harvest. The seeds he planted have thrived beyond measure, yielding even more than expected. His toil has been rewarded with the long-yearned triumph. However, the exhausted soil and the nearing winter dampen the glory of his achievements. Although his victory will feed him for a while, he has no means to replenish his provisions. Before a bed of corpses, preparing to be arrested and deported, our villain realizes that his success is also his ruin. In fact, it is because he has invested all of himself into this remarkable feat of evil that, at the end of it all, he is left with nothing. Just like a gardener or a farmer who have worked their land too hard, and have not left any space for the fallow earth. This fate is perhaps the most ruthless punishment in store for Iago, for, as his exploit’s growth brought only to its end, he is forced to wonder whether it was worth cultivating it at all. The scene closes without a victor, antagonist and protagonists defeated alike: a barren, desolate field.
Allegra Forbes is a IV former who was born in Cambridge, MA and has lived in Florence, Italy her whole life. During the school year, she studies French, Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, and teaches a class in elementary Italian.
Claudia–“Emilia: Feminist Wisdom”:
Out of the many themes and motifs in Othello, Emilia represents those strong feminist values and ideals of equality. Although she had betrayed Desdemona for the attention of her husband, she later unmasks Iago with her honesty. Had she duly served her husband, we would never have been able to see the reality of Iago’s plots. She was crucial in the “undoing” of Iago’s intricate scheme. Her practical intelligence and emotional resilience further proves her wisdom despite Iago’s underestimation.
In Act IV, scene iii, after Othello has left the room, Desdemona wonders about women who have affairs and engages in conversation with Emilia, asking her, “Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?” (4.3. 72) Emilia having more experience with the world and knowledge of human nature, does not see the world as Desdemona does and so replies, “Why would not you?” (4.3.73) Desdemona, young and faithful, exclaims that she would never do such a thing “by this heavenly light!”(4.3.74) Emilia responds to this jokingly, “Nor I neither by this heavenly light; I might do’t as well i’ the dark” (4.2.66-67). Emilia then goes on to express her belief that “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults/ If wives do fall.”(4.3.97) She explains to Desdemona, that if husbands decide to sleep around, hit their wives, get jealous for no reason and spend their wives money; they should remember that their wives will and can get resentful and take revenge as well – for they are humans too. She then proceeds to present her only, but critical, monologue in the play:
“Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
Whe they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well. Else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” (4.3.104-115)
Although Desdemona still cherishes her chastity and believes the talk of affair is immoral, this monologue is a bold statement and possibly the closest we will ever get to a feministic proclamation considering Othello was written in the 1600s. One might say Iago’s mistreatment of Emilia left her broiling in bitterness and thus she desires equality for women more than any other character in the play. It is a possible idea but nonetheless, she advocates her point well: Men have affairs all the time all the time, may it be just for “sport” or for “affection”, but it is simply because they give in to temptation. Since temptation is a human nature, and women are human too, women should therefore have the same right to have affairs. And if husbands “change us for others,” their wives will learn to do the same, simply because women are humans, just like men. Although, Emilia’s argument might not be the most cheerful message, it does show us Emilia’s strong sense of feminism and gender equality in an era of male domination.
Throughout the play, a strong bond of man and wife seems to exist between Iago and Emilia. This relationship, however, does not seem to be strong enough to call ‘Love’ as it is obvious Emilia is cared for only as long as she is of use to her husband. Iago is incapable and does not wish to love anyone or anything. Emilia, on the other hand, despite being used as a tool, she showed a great passionate devotion towards Iago.
She has a strong craving of attention from Iago and seems to be willing to do anything for his affection regardless of his unkindness. Her sole goal seems to be to please and satisfy Iago, as shown when she decides to give the handkerchief to Iago:
“I’ll have the work ta’en out,
And give’t Iago: what he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to please his fantasy.” (3.3. 296-299)
This, being the only misdeed she carries out in the play, further points out how strong her desire for attention from her husband is. In spite of the fact that Emilia seems to be yearning for Iago’s affection, she also builds up bitterness from his insults that will eventually lead to her unmasking of her very own husband. But, Emilia’s faithfulness, though its object is unworthy, is an amiable trait of Emilia throughout the play.
With bitterness boiling inside, Emilia’s emotional resilience is shown in her contradicting relationship with Iago, as she deals with his crude insults and cold words. During Act III, scene iii, in efforts to please him with Desdemona’s handkerchief, Emilia states that “ I have a thing for you” (3.3.301), indicating the handkerchief. But instead of a proper response, Iago replies with an insulting joke: “A thing for me? It is a common thing…” (3.3.302) In Shakespeare’s time, a woman’s “thing” was between her legs and by describing it as “a common thing” – it is available to every man.
Although Emilia endures these insults and continues to do Iago’s biddings without hesitation, she did not duly serve Iago. In her conversations with Desdemona, she displays suspicions towards men. These cynical ideas were rooted in Iago’s mistreatment of her and even though Emilia manages to control herself in front of her husband, her bitterness overtakes her in the last scene as she uncovers all of Iago’s schemes.
Being older and more experienced than Desdemona, Emilia develops a close relationship with the young married woman. The two often talk of their husband problems and marriage troubles: in the earlier scenes about Emilia’s bitter outlook on her marriage with Iago and towards the end about Desdemona’s deteriorating relationship with Othello and being accused with affair.
Throughout the two women’s conversations, Desdemona seems to be a conservative, old-fashioned young girl who bows down at the feet of Love. On the other hand, we can see Emilia as a modern woman, a feminist before her time with practical knowledge and scepticism towards men. In several cases, Emilia has doubted other male characters, namely Othello. Her scepticism was clearly shown in Act III, scene iv, when Desdemona realises she has lost her handkerchief, she reassures Emilia that “…my noble Moor/ Is true of mind and made of no such baseness /As jealous creatures are it were enough /To put him to ill thinking.” Inexperienced with men, Desdemona believes truly that Othello would never be jealous over such a small thing. On the contrary, Emilia asks “Is he not jealous?” (3.4.), indicating that she seems to doubt that Othello would not be jealous. She then watches Othello enter, scold Desdemona for the handkerchief, and leave in anger. She then asks once more, “Is not this man jealous?”(3.4.99). This shows the difference between the two women and most importantly how from her experiences in life, Emilia has gained enough insight to predict Othello’s outburst of jealousy, when Desdemona could not see it coming.
Later in the scene, when Desdemona tries to convince herself that Othello is only angered over his work as a general, Emilia suggests that Othello might actually be jealous. She goes on to offer her wisdom on the nature of jealousy, telling Desdemona that men “are not ever jealous for the cause” (3.4.181), that the nature of jealousy is that there is no particular reason for it. That husbands, and humans in general are “jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster/ Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3.4.181-183). Emilia’s age has given her much more experience and insight with other people, especially men. From these experiences she develops and gains practical knowledge of human nature and learnt to doubt people for she understands the ever-changing nature of humans.
Though Emilia seems to be hidden behind the grander scheme of events in the play, she is a crucial role. Out of all the characters in the play, Emilia is the only one that Iago underestimates and ultimately is the only one who can bring him down. She redeems herself as she sacrifices her own life to unmask Iago, and through her resilience, values for equality and practical wisdom she proves to be an honest and wise woman in the end.
Claudia Chung is a IV former from Hong Kong. She currently lives in Elm House on West Campus. She loves spending time in the art studio, hanging out with her brother, and playing music with her roommate.