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Helen of Troy's Drug Therapy: Odyssey 4.219-34 Homer.

At the beginning of Book 4 of the Odyssey, Telemachus, accompanied by Nestor's son, Peisistratus, has arrived at the palace of the Greek leader Menelaus at Sparta. Telemachus is in search of information about his missing father, Odysseus. The earlier books of the Odyssey, except for indirect references and the introductory few lines, do not depict the ordeals of the hero Odysseus, but primarily deal with his son, Telemachus, only an infant when Odysseus left for the Trojan War. By now Odysseus has been gone for approximately twenty years, and Homer depicts Telemachus as grieving, depressed, weeping, insecure, anxious, and confused. Athena, appearing to Telemachus in Book 1, encourages him to travel, seeking knowledge about his father. Guided by Athena, Telemachus first lands in Pylos, where the wise hero and counselor Nestor sends Telemachus to Menelaus and Helen at Sparta, so that Telemachus can learn the truth about his father.

Telemachus arrives when Menelaus and Helen are celebrating two weddings, that of their daughter Hermione whom they will send to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, and that of Megapenthes, Menelaus' son by a slave woman. In speaking to the visitors before these guests have identified themselves, Menelaus discusses the sufferings of Odysseus, causing tears in Telemachus. Helen then joins them, noticing that the same visitor bears a strong resemblance to Odysseus. After Menelaus says that he also noticed the resemblance, Peisistratus confirms the identity of Telemachus as the son of Odysseus. Menelaus talks more about Odysseus, with the result that all the participants are described as weeping.

Recommending that they all put aside weeping until the next day, Menelaus urges the guests to think instead of the feast they have just eaten.
Homer continues, in lines 219-34:
[phrase omitted], 220
[phrase omitted] (1) 230
Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, had another thought:
Immediately she threw a drug into the wine they were drinking 220
Banishing grief and anger, causing forgetfulness of all evils.
Whoever drinks this drug, when mixed with wine,
Would not let tears hurl down his cheeks during that day,
Not even if his mother and his father died,
Nor even if men would annihilate his brother or beloved son
With the sword while he sees it with his own eyes.
Such skillful drugs had the daughter of Zeus,
Which Polydamna, an Egyptian, the wife of Thon, had presented to her,
For in Egypt the earth, giver of grain, provides the most
Drugs, many indeed healing when mixed, but many destructive as well. 230
There everyone is a physician, understanding more
Than all men; for they are of the race of the god of healing.
When she let the drug go in and ordered the wine to be poured,
Helen again exchanged words with those present.

Helen surreptitiously throws the drug into the wine immediately after all the participants start weeping. An essential point, not always mentioned by discussants, is that the drug not only banishes grief, pain, and anger, but it also allows the conversation about Odysseus to continue. It prompts Telemachus to stop weeping, obtain a good night's sleep, and be able to think more clearly about his situation. Helen thus performs what may be the first documented example of psychopharmacology combined with psychotherapy. (2)

Homer calls the drug a [phrase omitted] (pharmakon, line 220). Homer refers to pharmaka in a number of episodes, usually with a benign effect. In the Iliad (Il. 11: 619-43), after Nestor treats the wounds of Machaon, both Nestor and Machaon drink from wine mixed with a potion, which restores their spirits. What is of significance is that this potion was made by a woman, Hecamede, who also mixes it directly into the wine. Another woman with a similar-sounding name, Agamede (Iliad 11: 740-41), also understands the nature of as many pharmaka as the wide earth nourishes. Circe also uses a pharmakon, mixing it into food, in order to turn men into swine (Od. 10: 235-40). Hermes, however, indicates to Odysseus how he can protect himself against Circe's magic with a [phrase omitted] ("excellent drug," Od. 10: 292). Circe subsequently uses a [phrase omitted] as an ointment to reverse the magic effects (Od. 10: 391-94). Although the god Hermes is involved with a drug, in reference to humans or demi-gods, there seems to be a tendency in Homer for women to be in charge of pharmaka and potions.

Helen does not just slip the drug into the wine or let it drip in, she "throws the drug" ([phrase omitted], bale pharmakon, line 220) into the wine. The verb [phrase omitted] in line 220 is a Homeric form, an unaugmented aorist of the verb [phrase omitted], ballo, the origin of the English word "ballistic," meaning "to throw, hurl, let cast, send flying." The same verb recurs three lines later as [phrase omitted] (baloi, 223), here an aorist optative active, third person singular, with a neuter plural subject. In reference to tears, this verb often signifies to "let tears fall." To capture the sense of "throwing, hurling," I have rendered the phrase in line 223 as "let tears hurl down."

The entire line 221, [phrase omitted] ("banishing grief and anger, causing forgetfulness of all evils"), provides another early historical example of a psychotherapy. Iamblichus (c. 250-c. 330 CE), in his [phrase omitted] (On the Life of Pythagoras), states that both Empedocles and Pythagoras had prevented a sudden act of violence in similar ways. In the case of Empedocles (Iamblichus 113), a youth rushed in to kill a judge, since the youth was angry and grieving, after the judge had condemned the youth's father to death. Empedocles, who was holding a lyre at the time, played it while reciting this line: "[phrase omitted]." The quotation worked, the youth was calmed, the murder was prevented, and the youth became a disciple of Empedocles. (3)

Later writers, recalling this passage, often called the drug by the name nepenthe. In Homer, however, nepenthes is not the name of the drug, but a neuter adjective (dictionary form [phrase omitted], nepenthes), modifying pharmakon: [phrase omitted] (nepenthes, "banishing grief and pain," 221). Formed from [phrase omitted] (penthos, "grief, sorrow"), nepenthes is an unusual word, found only in this line, or in derivations from this passage. The following phrase, [phrase omitted] (t'acholon te, "and anger") comes from [phrase omitted] (cholos, "bile, anger, bitter anger"). The sixteenth-century European neo-Stoic philosophers, as well as several Elizabethan poets, called the drug nepenthe, a name that has persisted. As stated by Jessica Wolfe, the influential Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) "interprets the substance as a symbol of the power of right reason and constancy to induce apatheia, or freedom from 'cares and sorrowes.'" (4) Many of us remember nepenthe from Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven":
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee--by these angels he hath
sent thee
Respite--respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore." (5)

The verb [phrase omitted] (de-i-o-di-en, 226) means "they would kill." The word contains five consecutive vowel sounds, or six total vowels, since the diphthong [phrase omitted] itself consists of oi. To modern ears, such a string of uninterrupted vowels seems awkward, a tongue-twister, but must have been natural to the reciters of the Homeric epics, the rhapsodes. I translate the verb as "annihilate," to try to capture the play of multiple vowels.

"There's Magic in the Web of It": Othello's Handkerchief and Helen of Troy's Drug

Stephen Rojcewicz
The pharmakon can never be merely beneficial.... If... what is supposed
to produce the positive and to cancel out the negative only serves to
displace and at the same time to multiply the effects of the negative,
leading to proliferation of the very lack that causes the negative,
this necessity is inscribed in the sign pharmakon. (6)
                                                      --Jacques Derrida

Homer's Odyssey, in a passage relating Helen of Troy's surreptitiously giving a drug to her husband and to Telemachus, appears to be a major source for William Shakespeare's description in Othello (1603-4) of the handkerchief given to Desdemona, which ultimately leads to her murder. This article will explore Othello's allusions to Helen's drug, to Odysseus, to the Odyssey, and will, I hope, add to our understanding of Shakespeare's reception of Greek literature. The creation of the handkerchief, for example, is inherently connected with magic and drugs, since an Egyptian sybil "dyed [it] in mummy" (Othello 3.4.76). (7) "Mummy" or "mumia" referred in early modern Europe to a medicinal substance extracted from embalmed corpses, which Paracelsus recommended for a variety of ailments and wounds. (8) That Shakespeare had Ulysses on his mind is reinforced by other echoes. Othello's narrative of his adventures as inspiring Desdemona's love, e.g., derives from a passage in Vergil's Aeneid related to Odysseus. In addition, the dying words of Othello, with their emphasis on "kiss," allude to Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's play two years earlier than Othello, in which the character of Ulysses/Odysseus entwines a kiss with deceit.

The Odyssey, Book 4, lines 219-34, depicts Helen putting into the wine her husband and Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, are drinking, a drug (pharmakon) that banishes grief and pain. (9) Among the multiple similarities between Helen's drug and Othello's handkerchief are the following:

1. that the drug and handkerchief were made in Egypt;

2. that these materials are given by an Egyptian woman to another woman;

3. that they result in calmness of mind, even if a person witnesses the violent death of a close relative, such as a brother;

4. that they can cause either good or destructive effects;

5. that the substances are connected with deceit, but, nevertheless, are associated with the emergence of truth; and

6. that they allow the story to be told/to unfold.

While some of these parallels may be coincidences, other similarities such as calmness of mind when a person witnesses the violent death of a brother and the destructive effect of a substance associated with drugs, are not found in the immediate sources for Othello. I would like to propose the Homeric passage as a foundation for part of Shakespeare's narrative.

This Homeric incident had inspired other Elizabethan poets: John Lyly (1553/54-1606), George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), Sir John Davies (1569-1626), and Edmund Spenser (1552/53-99). (10) Shakespeare was certainly familiar with the works of George Chapman, who was a playwright as well as a poet and translator, and with John Lyly and Edmund Spenser, who were renowned during Shakespeare's lifetime. Shakespeare was likely to have been familiar with Sir John Davies, who achieved widespread notoriety in Elizabethan England because of the Bishop's Ban in 1599, when the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London ordered the banning and burning of many written works. Included in the ban was Davies's book of epigrams (11) (which contained, among erotic poetry, his epigram referring to Helen's drug). Focusing on the relief of pain, anguish, distress, traumatic memories, or anger resulting from the drug, which they call "nepenthe" or "nepenthes," these four writers do not specifically emphasize any negative effects. In contrast, Shakespeare stresses that aspect, present in Homer, which the other Elizabethan poets ignore: the pharmakon/handkerchief can be destructive. Since Chapman's translation of the Odyssey, which does mention negative effects of the phar maka, was not completed until 1614, after the composition of Othello, Shakespeare appears to have had access, directly or indirectly, to Homer's Greek text.

The main source for the basic plot of Othello is a 1565 Italian tale, Un Capitano Moro, one of the narratives in Gli Hecatommithi (The One Hundred Tales) by Giovanni Battista Giraldi, known as Cinthio. (12) While no English translation of Cinthio was available in print during Shakespeare's lifetime, Shakespeare may have known the Italian original, Gabriel Chappuy's 1584 French translation, or an English translation in manuscript. The Moorish Captain is not given a personal name, but is called the Capitano Moro. Similarly, the Iago character is called alfiero, the "Ensign" or the "Standard Bearer." Cinthio gives a personal name only to "Disdemona," which derives from the Greek [phrase omitted] + [phrase omitted] (dus + daimon), meaning "ill-fated, unfortunate." Othello refers to this etymology when, after he has learned the truth about her innocence, he calls her: "O ill-starred wench" (Othello 5.2.270). "Ill-starred," that is to say, "dis-astrous," is a good translation of dus + daimon. Desdemona's death occurs in both Cinthio and Shakespeare's narratives through the machinations of the Ensign and is precipitated by an incident with the handkerchief. The English playwright, however, significantly changes other details. Cinthio has the Moor order the Ensign to kill Disdemona, and the Ensign's wife has only a very minor role in the Italian novella.

I am suggesting that Shakespeare's Othello combines the raw material from Cinthio's Un Capitano Moro with, among other sources, allusions to the narrative of Helen's drug treatment in Homer's Odyssey 4. 219-34, and to other passages related to Odysseus. Since Chapman's translation of the Odyssey was not printed at the time of Othello, Shakespeare might have relied on grammar school exercises in Latin concerning Homeric characters, Italian and French translations of the Odyssey which were available by 1600, Latin literature that reflects Homeric passages, or the 1583 Latin-Greek parallel-text version of Homer that was itself the basis of Chapman's own translation. This work was by Ioannes Spondanus (Jean de Sponde, 1557-95): Homeri quae extant omnia, Ilias, Odyssea, Batrachomyomachia, Hymni, Poematia... (All the Works of Homer That Are Extant, The Iliad, The Odyssey, the Battle of Frogs and Mice, The Homeric Hymns, Poetry, etc.). Spondanus's Latin text is based on an earlier Latin version by Andreas Divus, who first published his translation in 1537, followed by the revised 1570 Geneva version.

Comparison of Othello's Handkerchief and Helen of Troy's Drug

There are strong resonances between the handkerchief in Othello and Helen's drug in the Odyssey, Book 4. Some areas of similarity appear to be deliberate, not merely coincidental, since they do not occur in Cinthio's Un Capitano Moro, nor in Elizabethan poems that are based in some way on the story of Helen's drug. These parallels, however, do occur in the Odyssey.

Othello's description of the creation of the handkerchief and Brabantio's accusations against Othello both associate Othello with magic and drugs. Othello states that the handkerchief was made in Egypt by a sibyl:
A sibyl that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sewed the work;
The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy, which the skillful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.
Othello 3.4.72-77

At the time when Shakespeare wrote Othello, the term "mummy" primarily referred to a variety of medicinal substances associated with embalmed bodies, not to the embalmed corpses themselves. (13) Ian Smith has demonstrated that the original definition of "mummy" is that of a healing substance. (14) The word comes from the medieval Latin mumia, which itself derives from the Arabic medical term, mumiya, which can mean bitumen, a bituminous embalming substance, or an embalmed corpse. Michael Neill in his Oxford World's Classics edition of Othello notes that early modern Europeans considered mummy to have both medical and magical properties. Neill cites Paracelsus (1493-1541), "who believed that good quality mumia could restore the failing spirits of the sick by infusing them with the life-power of the deceased. Though prescribed for a wide variety of ailments, it was... celebrated for its anti-epileptic virtues. Shakespeare's son-in-law John Hall records its use." (15) Pharmacists in early modern Europe were expected to carry "mummy powder" as part of the pharmaceutical armamentarium. (16) In one of his treatises, "The Alchemical Process and Preparation of the Spirit of Vitriol," Paracelsus discussed the healing effects of mumia, often purified in olive oil, on "epilepsy, dropsy, small pox, and gout," and as an "immediate remedy for all kinds of poisons." (17) He also proclaimed that "mumia cures all wounds." (18)

The first association of Othello with magic and drugs occurs early in the play, setting the stage for later allusions. In Act 1, Scene 2, Brabantio, Desdemona's father, confronts Othello, claiming that Othello had "enchanted her... in chains of magic" with "foul charms" and "with drugs or minerals" (Othello 1.2.65-74). Brabantio's accusations, together with the fact that the handkerchief was "dyed in mummy" extracted from embalmed "maiden's hearts," reinforce Othello's conclusion that "there's magic in the web of it." These "chains of magic," "foul charms," and "drugs and minerals," while not directly associated with the handkerchief, echo the Homeric theme of destructive drugs.


Homer specifies that Helen's drug comes from Egypt, the land that provides the most drugs:
Such skillful drugs had the daughter of Zeus, Which Polydamna, an
Egyptian, the wife of Thon, had presented to her,
For in Egypt the earth, giver of grain, provides the most
Drugs, many indeed healing when mixed, but many destructive as well.
Od. 4.227-30

One modern Homeric commentator, Heubeck, cites Plutarch (de Iside 80) as stating that it was Egyptian practice to mix wine with an incense called kyphi, containing as many as sixteen ingredients, with the resulting mixture having "the power to dissolve sorrow and tension without drunkenness." (19)

As Othello says of the handkerchief, "'Tis true, there's magic in the web of it" (Othello 3.4.71). While this magic refers to the charms and spells placed in the handkerchief by the Egyptian sibyl, the magic also includes the pharmaceutical power of the Egyptian "mummy" used in its creation. The Egyptian provenance does not occur in Shakespeare's main source for the role of the handkerchief, Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi. Cinthio only states that the handkerchief was "worked (i.e., embroidered) in the Moorish manner" (lavorata alla moresca, in the original Italian, (20) or ouure a la Moresque, in the early French translation). (21)

Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello's handkerchief is overdetermined: there is no single literary foundation, but an integration of many influences. Helen of Troy's drug is only one of these sources, but it is a fundamental one, accounting for otherwise unexplained aspects of the handkerchief. Numerous critics have discussed the handkerchief, with opinions ranging from the conclusion that the handkerchief is a trivial detail, to examinations of the symbolism of the handkerchief and similarities to other examples in literature. Lynda Boose analyzes the fact that the handkerchief is embroidered, a (presumably) white linen "spotted with strawberries" (Othello 3.3.438). Using Deuteronomy 22.1317 (which mandates a test for female virginity), European folklore, English history, Elizabethan drama, the symbolism of strawberries, and close reading of passages containing the words "work" (used for embroidery and for sexual acts) and "bed sheets" in Othello, she argues that the handkerchief spotted with strawberries represents blood-stained bed linen as proof of virginity on the wedding night. (22)

While most critics have presumed the handkerchief to be white, Ian Smith argues that "dyed in mummy" indicates that the handkerchief was not white, but altered ("dyed") in color. While "mummy" may refer to various substances extracted from the corpses, the most important such substance is a bituminous mineral pitch, which produces a black or dark color. Concluding that the handkerchief was black, Smith emphasizes that it resembles Othello's skin, serving as a visible metonym for Othello. (23)

In addition, several scholars have suggested possible sources for the handkerchief in Greek mythology, as transmitted via Italian and Latin literature. Jane Tylus calls attention to Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) and his Orlando furioso. A sumptuous tent-like pavilion contains an enchanted fabric, embroidered by the Trojan prophetess Cassandra almost 2000 years earlier, which covers the marriage bed of Ruggiero, an African warrior and converted Muslim, and the Christian Bradamante. Cassandra had embroidered this fabric in a prophetic furor (il furor profetico). (24) This furor parallels the "prophetic fury" in Othello 3.4.74, and the marriage soon leads to Ruggiero's violent death at the hands of traitors. (25) In Orlando innamorato, a precursor to Orlando furioso, Matteo Maria Boiardo (1440-94) describes another pavilion with a different enchanted fabric, also associated with a wedding and a religious conversion. Similar to Othello's handkerchief, Boiardo's fabric is embroidered by a sybil, this time the renowned Sybil of Cumae. (26) Robert Miola has also noted the parallel between the handkerchief and the destructive cloak of the Centaur, Nessus, given in deceit and malice to the wife of Hercules, then sent by the wife to Hercules, resulting in his death. Both Othello's handkerchief and Nessus' cloak are given by one spouse to the other, with treachery involved, resulting in the death of the spouse receiving the material. Miola relates Shakespeare's use of the handkerchief as well as other elements in Othello to the impact of Seneca's plays about Hercules. (27)

Handkerchiefs, lost, stolen, or bloodied by murder, do play a role in other Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, but these examples do not appear to have influenced Shakespeare's use of Othello's handkerchief. The Spanish Tragedy, (circa 1582-92) by Thomas Kyd (1558-94), is the major Elizabethan play in which a handkerchief has a key role. In a precursor play, The First Part of Hieronimo, Bel-Imperia gives a silk handkerchief or scarf to Andrea (Hieronimo III.i.16-17). Andrea is slain by treachery at the end of this play, with his friend Horatio using the handkerchief to try to bind Andrea's wounds. After Horatio is himself murdered in the better-known The Spanish Tragedy, Horatio's father, Hieronimo, dips the handkerchief in Horatio's blood as he plots and executes vengeance. (28) The handkerchief has many meanings in this tragedy: a token of love, a remembrance of a lost loved one, a reminder of the desire for revenge, and a symbol of annihilation and erasure. (29) Kyd's "bloody handkerchief," however, is not associated with a test for infidelity, nor does it bear other resemblance to Othello's handkerchief. Other examples of lost or stolen handkerchiefs postdate Othello: Ben Jonson's Volpone (1605-6) and Bartholomew Fair (1614). The above works of erudition and the similarities in Elizabethan drama have much to offer, but these studies do not explain certain essential qualities of the handkerchief, like Othello's calmness of mind when he witnesses the violent death of his brother.


In Homer, Polydamna, an Egyptian woman, the wife of Thon, gives the drug to Helen (Od. 4.228-29). In Shakespeare, an Egyptian woman gives the handkerchief to Othello's mother, and explains its qualities:
That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give,
She was a charmer and could almost read
The thoughts of people.
Othello 3.4.57-60

Again, this detail does not occur in Cinthio. There is a later passage in Othello when the Moor states that "it was a handkerchief, an antique token / My father gave my mother" (Othello 5.2.214-15). The detailed description of the Egyptian woman in 3.4.57-65 suggests that even if Othello's father arranged the gift of handkerchief, the Egyptian sybil made the handkerchief, and an Egyptian woman personally handed it to Othello's mother.


The Homeric narrator states the drug would banish grief, pain, and anger, even if the person directly observed with his own eyes the violent death of his brother (Od. 4.225-26): "Nor even if men would annihilate his brother or beloved son / With the sword while he sees it with his own eyes." After Emilia sees Othello becoming angry because the handkerchief is missing, she mentions this to her husband, 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 3.4.135-38). This detail, absent in Cinthio, is not necessary for the plot of Othello. Even if Shakespeare intends "brother" to be taken loosely, as a relative or companion, Iago is astounded by the contrast of Othello's lack of anger in that instance and Othello's rage about the handkerchief. Although the handkerchief is not a direct part of the earlier battle scene, this passage seems to be an echo of the Homeric account of Helen of Troy's drug.


Homer states that the drugs (pharmaka) from Egypt can have either beneficial ([phrase omitted], esthla, "good, excellent," and in context, "healing"), or destructive effects ([phrase omitted], lugra, "mournful, destructive, harmful"; Od. 4.225-30). 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 3.4.62-70).

Later writers, recalling this Homeric passage, often called Helen's drug by the name nepenthe, e.g., Spenser's Faerie Queene, Book 4, Canto iii. In Homer, however, nepenthes is not the name of the drug, but a neuter adjective, meaning "banishing grief and pain" (Od. 4.221). John Davies, the only Elizabethan poet who explicitly links nepenthe to Helen of Troy, has two very similar poems on the drug. In "On Tobacco. Epigram 36," written by 1599, Davies acclaims:
Nepenthe, Heaven's drinke, most gladness brings,
Heart's griefe expells, and doth the wits refine.

Unfortunately, nepenthe no longer works wonders in the poet's time, but tobacco, instead, relieves the toothache, soothes the stomach, expels cold, etc. (30) In a second, related poem, found in manuscript and given the title "Tobacco" by the editor, Davies directly connects nepenthe to Helen of Troy:
Nepenth Hellen's drink, which gladness brings,--
Hart's greife repells, and doth yet witts refine. (31)

Homer explicitly states in reference to the drugs from Egypt (pharmaka), that many are "healing" or "excellent," but many are "destructive" (lugra). The negative effects are an inherent part of the overall linguistic connotation of the term. The Greek meanings of [phrase omitted] (pharmakon) include "drug, medicine, enchanted potion, charm, spell, enchantment, poison." (32) Othello captures the connotation of pharmakon with his description of the handkerchief: "'Tis true, there's magic in the web of it" (Othello 3.4.71). The Latin equivalent of pharmakon in Spondanus' translation of the Odyssey is pharmacum. This is not a classical Latin word, but a Late Latin one. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) defines pharmacum as "a drug, medicine," but its first example given for this word is that "each drug is poisonous" (omne farmacum est venonosum) from the Glossa ordinaria of Gilbert Universalis, Bishop of London, 1128-34. Related to the Greek noun for the material, [phrase omitted], is the agent noun pharmakos, with nuances of meaning depending on whether the accent is on the first or the third syllable. With the accent on the antepenult, [phrase omitted] means "poisoner, sorcerer, magician." When the ultima receives the accent, [phrase omitted] signifies "one sacrificed or executed as an atonement or purification, a scapegoat." (33) According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, pharmacus is a "gallows-bird," that is, one who deserves hanging. (34) The DMLBS defines pharmacus, as a "poisoner or sorcerer." (35) I would like to offer the speculation that the destructive effects of the handkerchief are, in part, echoes of the destructive effects of Helen of Troy's drug.


As depicted by Homer, Helen throws the drug into the wine to prevent Menelaus from remembering the painful truth about Odysseus. The addition of the pharmakon to Menelaus' wine, however, has the unintended effect of enabling Menelaus, in the words of Ann Bergren, "to recall without pain, what pain might have kept beyond recall," (36) that is, memories of Helen as deceitful and as a traitor to the Greek cause. Menelaus narrates how Helen, acting with Deiphobus, her Trojan consort after the death of Paris, attempts to ensnare the Greek soldiers hidden inside the Trojan horse, hoping to lead to their deaths (Odyssey 4.271-89). Although the drug inhibits painful memories about Odysseus, it frees Menelaus to describe Helen to her guests as treacherous and bent on slaughter of the Greeks.

In Othello the handkerchief is part of Iago's plot to implicate Desdemona in lechery, in order to reinforce Othello's insane jealousy, leading to her murder. In regard to treachery Iago succeeds, since he plants the stolen handkerchief in Cassio's room, which seems to furnish to Othello proof of the grounds for his jealousy. After the death of Desdemona, however, Emilia discloses to Othello how she had stolen the handkerchief on her husband's orders, leading to Othello's recognition of Iago's deceit and Desdemona's innocence, and to the denouement.


Ann Bergren compares the effect of this drug to epic: a drug can cure or can destroy, just as epic poetry and words can give delight by providing fame (kleos) or can make people wretched and stimulate unforgettable grief. Bergren argues that Book 4 of the Odyssey is characterized by two-part structures throughout: the time is divided into two-part periods, drugs are divided into two polarities, good and bad, etc. According to Bergen, the center of this Book appears to be Helen's mixing of a drug with the wine that the participants are drinking. Helen anticipates that the conversation can now continue, and will lead to kleos. Drugs, used for this purpose, are analogous to poetry and stories. The speech Helen then makes, according to Bergren, also attempts to lead to kleos without a sense of loss or of pain. (37)

According to Bergren, Helen's drug can be seen as a "text," in that it enables further stories to be told. (38) In the Shakespearean play Othello declares, in reference to the handkerchief: "'Tis true, there's magic in the web of it" (Othello 3.4.71). "Web" is a metaphor from the art of weaving. Etymologically, the English word "text" derives from the Latin verb texo, or rather from its past participle, textum, originally meaning "to weave," "to put together," "to make a fabric," "to depict in a tapestry," and then "to compose" (a speech or writing). Othello's word "web" corresponds to Latin textum. Both Helen's drug and the web of the handkerchief assist the development of the narrative, allow the stories to unfold, and may be seen as textual in this sense.

Shakespeare's Greek

Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare had "small Latine and lesse Greeke." (39) Recent scholarship has modified the impact of Jonson's statement, detailing Shakespeare's contact with Latin and with ancient Greek culture. As Jonathan Bate has written, "Shakespeare's schooling was saturated in the stories, character types, and literary genres of classical antiquity." (40) Shakespeare had a free grammar school education at King's New School, Stratford-upon-Avon, located in a single large room in a building that still survives. He started his schooling at approximately age seven. School would begin at 6 AM in summer and 7 AM in winter, and extend until 5:30 or 6 PM, six days per week, except for half-days on Thursdays and Saturdays, 12 months per year, with very few holidays.

Although the precise curriculum of the King's New School is not known, the curriculum in comparable schools would include Latin grammar and literature in the first few years, with examples practically always taken from the playwright Terence, a Latin translation of Aesop, and a compilation of sayings, Sententiae Pueriles (Childhood Sayings) by Leonhardus Culmannus. The boys then proceeded to write imitations in Latin to illustrate the grammatical principles. (41) While it is not known how long Shakespeare studied at the King's New School, instruction even in the early years would include some reference to themes from Greek literature. After mastering Latin grammar, the students would go on to study Vergil, Ovid, Horace, more Terence, and Battista Spagnuoli (1447-1516), known as Mantuan. (42) The instruction was in Latin, emphasizing memorization, grammatical drills, literary composition, rhetorical exercises on classical themes and in imitation of ancient authors, conversation and letter writing in Latin, and dramatization of plays in Latin. (43)

This curriculum was based on the writings of Erasmus, who advocated that students write composition exercises on issues selected from Homer, and that they create orations in the persons of mythical and historical characters. (44) Erasmus also mandated how certain classical heroes were to be treated: "Ulysses," he wrote, using the Latin name, "must be cunning, lying, deceitful, able to endure anything." (45) In addition, Latin textbooks in Elizabethan grammar school typically had marginal notes that provided information on the Greek sources for the Latin works in question. Shakespeare's edition of Vergil might well have been that edited by Paulus Manutius, which contained marginal annotations detailing the numerous parallels between Homer and Vergil. (46)

Students in the upper levels studied Greek, but at least minimal Greek was common in the lower levels of many schools. One renowned classics scholar, writing in 1955, has judged that the expertise derived from an Elizabethan grammar school education was equivalent or superior to that of a university-level classics graduate program at the time of his 1955 publication. (47) In later life Shakespeare retained enough of his grammar school education to read and translate Latin, as determined by his use of sources that did not exist in contemporary translations, like the story of Lucretia in Ovid's Fasti.

A. D. Nuttall enumerates various ways Shakespeare made contact with ancient Greek literature: "he talked in pubs to Ben Jonson and others, knew a little of academic Latin drama, had already become alert to Romano-Greek negotiations within the work of Ovid,... scented Greek forms behind Plautus, Terence, and Seneca... [knew] Latin versions of the Iliad... [and] Arthur Hall's 1581 English Ten Books of Homers Iliades" (48) Nuttall also suggests that Shakespeare may have had access to Spondanus' bilingual Latin-Greek version of Homer, based on Shakespeare's description of the six gates of Troy in the Prologue to Troilus and Cressida: "with massy staples / And corresponsive and fulfilling bolts" (17-18). (49) These lines parallel the description of the walls of Troy in Homer's Iliad 12.453-456. In Iliad 12.456, Homer uses the word [phrase omitted] (epemoiboi), for which Spondanus gives mutui as the Latin equivalent. Nuttall argues that Shakespeare's tetrasyllabic "corresponsive" in Prologue, line 18 is a better translation into English of the tetrasyllabic epemoiboi than is Nuttall's own attempt at translating this word, "interchanging," and better than Spondanus' Latin equivalent, mutui (literally, "mutual"). Nuttall concludes that "Perhaps after all... Shakespeare did hack his way through some of Homer's Greek." (50) I would like to add that the Greek word epemoiboi, while perhaps unusual by itself, derives from a word commonly used by Homer for back-and-forth conversation, and thus known by those who have only made a beginning study of Homer: [phrase omitted], (ameibo.) Meaning "to exchange, to answer one another in dialogue," forms of ameibo occur over forty-five times in Homer. (51)

Additional Shakespearean contact with ancient Greek came from coauthors, translations of Hellenistic Greek romances, Plutarch, and citations of Greek plays in Seneca. George Peele, a collaborator with Shakespeare for at least Act I of Titus Andronicus (c. 1592), had translated into English one of the Iphigenia plays of Euripides. Jonathan Bate would add to this list the fact that Shakespeare was an actor documented, via Dramatis Personae lists, to have performed in plays based on classical material; e.g., Sejanus by Ben Jonson. (52) Shakespeare was also well-acquainted with English translations of the ancient Greek Romances (circa the first three centuries CE), alluding in various dramas to Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon, Heliodorus' Aethiopica, and Longus' Daphnis and Chloe. (53) Shakespeare certainly depended on English translations of Greek works, including Sir Thomas North's version of Plutarch's Parallel Lives (1579, with an expanded edition in 1595). Translations of short excerpts from Greek plays occurred frequently in English Renaissance non-dramatic texts, such as English translations of Seneca's essays and letters, becoming a source for Elizabethan playwrights. (54) Greek plays were prominent in the Elizabethan theater, through Latin and English translations, and in adaptations and imitations. (55) Hamlet's allusion to the Queen of Troy could thus be understood by the audience when, following the players' rehearsal, he asks in a soliloquy: "For Hecuba! / What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?" (Hamlet 2.2.529-31).

Shakespeare's relationship to the Odyssey, however, is complex. Homer, at least indirectly, thoroughly permeated the cultural atmosphere of Elizabethan grammar school education and the overall literary culture. In Renaissance England, according to Tania Demetriou, "the discovery of Homer was first a 'rediscovery backwards' of the Homer already known--referred to, quoted and imitated by other authors and completely assimilated by Virgil.... In discovering Homer it is the known that is rediscovered." (56) Despite the prominence of writings in Middle English and Elizabethan culture based on Homer's narratives of Troy, "Boccaccio, Chaucer, and others said nothing of Ulysses in their versions of the Troy tale. Shakespeare was the first to give Ulysses a prominent part in the Troilus and Cressida story." (57)

While Ulysses/Odysseus is a prominent character in Troilus and Cressida (1602), the Greek hero plays an important, but subtle, role in Othello. Latin literature clearly mediates one of these references in Othello. In his account of how his narrative of adventures inspired Desdemona to love him, Othello speaks of "antres vast," linking "antres" to marvels, escape from danger, and escape from cannibals, thus alluding to Odysseus and the Cyclops:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,
It was my hint to speak--such was the process:
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi.
Othello 1.3.141-45

Shakespeare's "antres vast" echoes very precisely Aeneid 3.616. When Aeneas, during his wanderings, arrives in Sicily, he rescues a Greek survivor of Odysseus' stay with Polyphemus. The Greek survivor, having been left behind by Odysseus months earlier, narrates Polyphemus' cannibalistic outrages that took place vasto Cyclopis in antro ("in the vast cave of the Cyclops"). (58) The legend of Polyphemus, often mediated through Theocritus, Vergil, and Ovid, had a rich literary afterlife in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. (59) Spenser, for example, utilizes images from Homer's Cyclops for his Satanic characters, Orgoglio (Fairie Queene I.vii.10) and the cannibalistic Hairy Carl (IV.vii.5-8). (60) In addition, the Elizabethan playwright John Webster refers to Polyphemus in his 1585 tragedy, The White Devil (IV. ii.63-65). (61) Polyphemus also served as common theme for grammar school exercises. In an important sixteenth-century textbook for grammar schools, Sir Thomas Elyot wrote: "When he has finished the story of the Cyclops who was blinded by Ulysses, the teacher should say in conclusion that the prince who has great strength of body, but not of mind, is like Polyphemus." (62) The typical contemporary English attitude toward Odysseus/Ulysses in literature was one of wariness and concern about Odysseus' machinations and deceit. As Erasmus had written in outlining a school exercise, "Ulysses must be cunning, lying, deceitful, able to endure anything." While Othello displays some characteristics of Ulysses, Iago is the main Ulysses-like character in the drama.

Vergil, a mainstay of Elizabethan education, reinforces this attitude by his depiction of Odysseus as sclerumque inuentor Vlixes, "and the contriver of crimes, Ulysses" (Aen. 2.164). In the Aeneid passage cited by Shakespeare as "antres vast," for example, the Trojan who is rescued by Aeneas had been abandoned in the vicinity of the Cyclops (equivalent to being betrayed) by Odysseus. In Troilus and Cressida Ulysses, in addition to his overall manipulations of Achilles and other characters, arranges for the Trojan Cressida, newly arrived at the Greek camp, to be greeted by the Greek leaders with a kiss. After the other Greek heroes kiss her, Ulysses also asks Cressida for a kiss, which she is willing to give; he then refuses to kiss her, declaring that she can "give me a kiss / When Helen is a maid again" (Troilus 4.5.49-50). After Cressida exits, Ulysses insults her:
Fie, fie upon her!
There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip--
Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
Troilus 4.5.54-57

Othello also associates a kiss with mistreatment of a woman and danger. After he has stabbed himself in the presence of Desdemona's body, Othello speaks his last words: "I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss (Othello 5.2.356-357). Kissing Desdemona, Othello then dies.


While some of the similarities between Helen's drug and Othello's handkerchief (both were made in Egypt, both were given by an Egyptian woman to another woman) may be coincidental, other correspondences are unlikely to be accidental. Shakespeare includes the detail that Othello had not become angry when he had witnessed the death of his own brother, who was standing next to him at the time. This information seems to be to represent the lines in Homer that:
Whoever drinks this drug, when mixed with wine,
Would not let tears hurl down his cheeks during that day,
Not even if his mother and his father died,
Nor even if men would annihilate his brother or beloved son
With the sword while he sees it with his own eyes.
Od. 4.222-26

Similarly, the Elizabethan poets who wrote about Helen's drug do not emphasize potentially disastrous effects of such a pharmakon. Homer, however, wrote of such drugs that "many indeed [are] healing when mixed, but many destructive as well" (Od. 4.230).

Othello is a work of genius, transforming its main source, Cinthio's Un Capitano Moro, and alluding to Odysseus and Homer's Odyssey. This reception of Odysseus/Ulysses is multidimensional, through:

* transmission of a narrative via the Latin of Vergil's Aeneid concerning Odysseus and the Cyclops, using a phrase with almost identical words;

* parallels between the dying words of Othello (in reference to a kiss and deceit) and the Ulysses as portrayed in Shakespeare's earlier play, Troilus and Cressida;

* allusions to Helen of Troy's drug through Othello's handkerchief, including the fact that it was dyed with "mummy," a medical substance, and through Othello's lack of reaction to the death of his brother in battle. Shakespeare's Othello is enriched by subtle allusions to Helen of Troy's drug, Odysseus, Polyphemus, and the machinations and deceit of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida.

Translated from Homeric Greek by Stephen Rojcewicz

(1) Greek text from Homeri Opera, Tomus III, Odysseae Libros I-XII Continens, ed. Thomas W. Allen, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

(2) Stephen Rojcewicz, "Psychotherapy in the Odyssey" Journal of Poetry Therapy 22 (2009): 101-5.

(3) Greek text and English translation in Iamblichus, On the Pythagorean Way of Life, trans. John Dillon and Jackson Hershbell (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 136-37.

(4) Jessica Wolfe, Homer and the Question of Strife from Erasmus to Hobbes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 224.

(5) Hervey Allen, ed., The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Modern Library, 1965), 943-46, at 945.

(6) "Le pharmakon ne peut jamais etre simplement benefique.... Si... ce qui est cense produire le positif et annuler le negatif ne fait que deplacer et a la fois multiplier les effets du negatif, conduisant a proliferation le manque qui fut sa cause, cette necessite est inscrite dans le signe pharmakon." Jacques Derrida, "La pharmacie de Platon," Tel Quel 32/33: 257-403, 1968, at 299-300. Reprinted in Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Paris: Seuil, 1972), 123-24. My translation.

(7) Citations of Othello are from A. J. Honigman, ed., Othello, 3rd ed. (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2002).

(8) Paracelsus, The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings, Vol. II, ed. Arthur Edward Waite (Chicago: de Laurens, Scott, and Co., 1910), 231-36.

(9) See the accompanying article for a detailed discussion of this passage.

(10) Jessica Wolfe, Homer and the Question of Strife from Erasmus to Hobbes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 224-26.

(11) Jonathan Bate, How the Classics Made Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 199.

(12) "Un Capitano Moro," ed. and trans. Horace Howard Furness, in Othello: The New Variorum Edition (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000, originally published 1886), 376-89. See also Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. 7 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973).

(13) Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), s.v. mummy, 763, definitions 1 and 2.

(14) Ian Smith, "Othello's Black Handkerchief," Shakespeare Quarterly 64 (2013): 1-25, at 16-19.

(15) Michael Neill, ed., Othello: The Moor of Venice (Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 2006), 466.

(16) Henry M. Pachter, Magic Into Science: The Story of Paracelsus (New York, NY: Henry Schuman, 1951), 53.

(17) Paracelsus, Hermetic... Writings, 231-32.

(18) Pachter, Magic, 213.

(19) A. Heubeck, S. West, and J. B. Haunsworth, A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 207.

(20) "Un Capitano Moro," 382.

(21) Honigman, Othello, 378.

(22) Lynda E. Boose, "Othello's Handkerchief: 'The Recognition and Pledge of Love,'" in Edward Pechter, ed. Othello: Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism (New York: Norton, 2004), 262-75. Original work published in English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 360-74.

(23) Smith, 15-20.

(24) Ariosto, Orlando furioso 46.75, cited in Jane Tylus, "Imitating Othello: The Handkerchief, alla Italiana," Renaissance Drama n.s. 36/37 (2010): 237-60, at 238. The major English translation by David R. Slavitt, Orlando Furioso (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), briefly summarizes this portion of the canto, but does not provide the full text.

(25) Tylus, ibid., 242.

(26) Boiardo, Orlando innamorato 2.27.49-51. English summary by Charles Stanley Ross, Boiardo: Orlando innamorato (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 377.

(27) Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 124-43, esp. 134-35. See also Robert S. Miola, "Othello Furens," Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 49-64.

(28) Thomas Kyd, The Works of Thomas Kyd, ed. Frederick S. Boas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967/1901), 1-100 and 295-338.

(29) Andrew Sofer, "Absorbing Interests: Kyd's Bloody Handkerchief as Palimpsest," Comparative Drama 34 (2000): 127-53.

(30) John Davies, The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies, Vol. II, ed. Alexander B. Grosart. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1876), 33-35.

(31) Ibid., 266.

(32) Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. rev. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), s.v. [phrase omitted].

(33) Liddell-Scott-Jones, s.v. [phrase omitted] and [phrase omitted].

(34) P. G. W. Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary, rev. ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 2006), s.v. pharmacus.

(35) DMLBS, at, s.v. pharmacum and pharmacus, accessed 06 June 2019.

(36) Ann Bergren, "Helen's 'Good Drug': Odyssey IV 1-305," in Contemporary Literary Hermeneutics and Interpretation of Classical Texts, ed. Stephanus Kresic (Ottawa: Editions de l'Universite d'Ottawa, 1981), 201-14, at 210.

(37) Ibid.

(38) Ibid., 207-11.

(39) Ben Jonson, "Ben Jonson's Eulogy to Shakespeare," First Folio (1623). Available at:

(40) Bate, How the Classics, 36.

(41) T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, vol. 1 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944), 557-682. I rely on Baldwin for many of the details in my discussion of Elizabethan grammar schools.

(42) Some Elizabethan grammar schools substituted the Georgics and Eclogues by Mantuan for those by Vergil. Although scholars have found numerous parallels in Shakespeare to Vergil's Aeneid, especially to Books 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6, they have identified fewer Shakespearean allusions to Vergil's Eclogues and Georgics. Baldwin suggests that Shakespeare may have studied Mantuan's versions of these works. instead of Vergil's. (Baldwin, ibid., vol. 2, 456-96).

(43) Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 24-28. Also, Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age (New York: Random House, 2009), 73-92.

(44) Erasmus, Exercitatio et imitatio, cited in Baldwin, William Shakspere, vol. 2, 239-40.

(45) Erasmus, De copia, 584-85, cited in Colin Burrow, "Shakespeare and Humanistic Culture," in Shakespeare and the Classics, ed. Charles Martindale and A. B. Taylor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 9-27, at 26.

(46) Baldwin, William Shakspere, vol. 2, 456-57.

(47) R. R. Bolgar, "Classical Reading in Renaissance Schools," Durham Research Review 6 (1955): 18-26, at 22. Cited by Tanya Pollard, Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 58.

(48) A. D. Nuttall, "Action at a Distance: Shakespeare and the Greeks," in Martindale and Taylor, 209-22, at 217.

(49) Citations from Troilus and Cressida are from Kenneth Palmer, ed., Troilus and Cressida (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1994).

(50) Nuttall, "Action at a Distance," 220.

(51) Richard John Cunliffe, A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 25.

(52) Bate, How the Classics Made Shakespeare, 14.

(53) Carol Gesner, Shakespeare and the Greek Romance (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970). Also, Stuart Gillespie, "Shakespeare and Greek Romance: 'Like an Old Tale Still,'" in Martindale and Taylor, 225-37.

(54) Gordon Braden, "Classical Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare," Classical Receptions Journal 9 (2017): 103-19.

(55) Pollard, Greek Tragic Women, 1-20.

(56) Tania Demetriou, " 'Strange Appearance': The Reception of Homer in Renaissance England," (PhD Dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2008), cited in Pollard (ibid., 24, fn7.

(57) William Bedell Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero, 2nd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), 270, fn10.

(58) Aeneid 3.616, P. Vergili Maronis Opera, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 172.

(59) H. M. Richmond, "Polyphemus in England: A Study in Comparative Literature," Comparative Literature 12 (1960): 229-42.

(60) Shirley Clay Scott, "Man, Mind, and Monster: Polyphemus from Homer through Joyce," Classical and Modern Literature: 16 (1995): 19-75, at 50.

(61) John Webster, The White Devil, ed. John Russell Brown (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), 105.

(62) Thomas Elyot, Training the Christian Prince (1531), cited in Baldwin, William Shakspere, vol. 2, 456-57.

doi: 10.5744/delos.2019.1027

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