The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0102  Tuesday, 12 March 2013


From:        Stephen Rojcewicz <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Thursday, March 7, 2013 11:57 PM

Subject:     Othello Speculation


I would like to offer a speculation on a possible source, as well as to proffer an additional interpretation of the handkerchief in Othello, Act Three, Scene 4, in the hope of addressing themes of fear, grief, pharmakon, and jealousy. In particular, I would like to examine Shakespeare’s use of the handkerchief in the context of the Odyssey, Book 4, lines 219-234, where Helen gives to her husband and to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, a drug that banishes grief and pain.


Ben Johnson wrote that Shakespeare had “small Latine and lesse Greeke.” Shakespeare, nevertheless, appears to have been able to read Latin reasonably well, as determined by his use of sources that did not exist in contemporary translations, like the story of Lucretia in Ovid’s Fasti. Chapman’s translation of the Odyssey was not completed until 1614, after the creation of Othello, but Italian and French translations of the Odyssey were available by 1600, and Shakespeare himself utilized either the original Italian or a French version of a novella from Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommothi (no English translation being documented at that date) as a major source for the narrative of Othello. Even if Shakespeare did not read any translation of passages from the Odyssey, he may have been familiar with the Homeric passage through other writings. Line 221 of this passage from the Odyssey (beginning with nepenthe, “banishing grief and pain”) was, for example, widely quoted by classical writers, and the Homeric passage may have influenced some of the writers on whom Shakespeare relied for source material.


Here is the passage, as translated by T. E. Shaw, better known by his nom de guerre, Lawrence of Arabia:


But Helen, of the line of Zeus, called to mind another resource. Into the wine they were drinking she cast a drug which melted sorrow [nepenthe, literally, “banishing grief and pain”] and sweetened gall, which made men forgetful of their pains. Whoso swallowed it mixed within his cup would not on that day let roll one tear down his cheeks, not though his mother and his father died, not though men hacked to death his brother or loved son with the cutting edge before him and he seeing it with his eyes. These drugs of subtle potency had been furnished the daughter of Zeus by the wife of Thon, even Polydamna the woman of Egypt, where the plough-lands excel other plough-lands of earth in bearing abundance of medicines [pharmakon, in the original] : of which some when compounded are healing and others baneful. (T. E. Shaw: The Odyssey of Homer, pp. 50-51).


The following are some similarities between the Homeric scene and the role of the handkerchief in Othello:


1. Material was made in Egypt.


Homer states that the drug banishing grief was made in Egypt (Odyssey 4.229-230). Othello indicates that the handkerchief was made in Egypt (Othello III.3.57-77). Such provenance does not occur in Shakespeare’s source for the role of the handkerchief, Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommothi. Cinthio only states that the handkerchief was worked (i.e., embroidered) in the Moorish manner (lavorata alla moresca, in the original Italian, p. 382 of the Italian text in Othello: The New Variorum Edition, originally published 1886), or ouuré à la Moresque, “worked in the Moorish manner,” in the early French translation (Arden Othello, Third Edition, p. 378).


2. Material was given by an Egyptian woman to another woman.


In Homer, Polydamna, an Egyptian woman, gives the drug to Helen (Odyssey 4.228-229). In Shakespeare, an Egyptian woman gives the handkerchief to Othello’s mother (Othello III.3.58). This detail does not occur in Cinthio.


3. Calmness of mind, even if a person witnesses the violent death of his brother.


The Homeric narrator states the drug would banish grief and pain, even if the person directly observed the violent deaths of his brother or son (Odyssey 4.225-226). After Emilia sees Othello becoming angry because the handkerchief is missing, she mentions this to Iago, who comments that Othello must really be angry now because he had not become angry when he had witnessed a cannon ball kill his own brother, who was standing next to him (Othello III.3.135-138). Once again, his detail does not occur in Shakespeare’s source, Cinthio.


4. Good and bad effects of the material.


Homer states that the drugs (pharmaka) from Egypt can have either beneficial or destructive effects (Odyssey 4.225-230). Othello states that the handkerchief would keep a husband amiable if his wife kept it, but that the husband would loathe his wife if she lost it or gave it away, and perdition would follow (Othello III.3.60-70).


5. Unintended effects of the material.


In Homer, Helen’s slipping of the drug into Menelaus’ wine has the unintended effect of enabling Menelaus to recall without pain, what pain might have kept beyond recall, memories of Helen as a traitor, acting with Deiphobus, her Trojan consort after the death of Paris, in attempting to ensnare, to their deaths, the Greek soldiers hidden inside the Trojan horse (Odyssey 4.271-289). The handkerchief furnishes the proof to Othello, reinforcing his jealousy, and leading to his murder of Desdemona. (Othello V, Scene 2).


6. The material as the text.


Ann Bergren has argued that Helen uses the drug, mixed with wine, so that Menelaus’ banquet can lead to recollections of Odysseus without pain, so that the stories can be told without negative side effects (Ann Bergren: Helen’s ‘Good Drug’: Odyssey IV 1-305. In Contemporary Literary Hermeneutics and Interpretation of Classical Texts. Edidit Stephanus Kresic. Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1981, pp. 201-214). 


Othello declares that there is magic in the web of the handkerchief  (Othello III.4.71). “Web” is a metaphor from the art of weaving. Etymologically, the English word “text” derives from the Latin verb texo, texere, texui, textum (the past participle), originally meaning “to weave”, “to put together”, “to make a fabric”, “to depict in a tapestry” and then “to compose” (a speech or writing). The ancient Greek cognate is the noun technē, “art, skill, a method of making or doing”. 


Both Helen’s drug and the web of the handkerchief assist the development of the text, allow the stories to unfold (cf. the “crumpled handkerchiefs” of Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter), and may be seen as textual in their own rights. 


There are strong points of comparison between the handkerchief in Othello and Helen’s drug in the Odyssey, Book 4. These areas of similarity appear to be deliberate, since they do not occur in Cinthio, Shakespeare’s source for the handkerchief motif. Although this is speculative, my conclusion is that the Homeric passage is a source for Shakespeare’s handkerchief, and an examination of the narrative effects of the drug can lead to a greater understanding of Shakespeare’s text.


Stephen Rojcewicz


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