Iago and Hippolytus

Ever read Euripides’s Hippolytus?

It’s interesting because Hippolytus is very like a Taliban dude. He loves Artemis and hates Aphrodite, and he keeps telling everyone how pure he is. In short, he hates sex.

It has this one speech of his, starting at line 617…

Oh, Zeus! Why did you bring woman into the light of the sun? Woman, this impure, this evil destroyer of mortals! If you wanted to sow the seeds for the mortal race you should not have done it through women but a price.

Men should be able to just go to some temple or other, put there some piece of bronze or iron, or even some gold –whatever their means would allow- and with that price paid, pick themselves the son they want. Take him home with him and there, the two men could live out their lives, in their house without a woman to be seen anywhere! As it is now, even before we want to bring this… this curse, into our house, we must squander away our whole estate! And here’s what I mean by this. Here’s the clear proof of it: The woman’s father, the man who had begotten that beast and who had raised her -that poor man, not only has to lay a dowry out for her but he must also send her away, so he can shed from himself this unbearable burden!

And then, her husband, the other poor creature, the one who has brought this… fake statue, into his house, this ruinous beast, her husband, the moment he gets her into his house, he begins to happily decorate her! He begins the little game of cajoling her with pretty clothes! Fancy clothes for a worthless, vile statue! And there, you see, there goes, bit by little bit, all the wealth of his estate! And then come the unavoidable choices of his constrains. Either his in-laws are so good that he accepts the burden of having to endure a rotten and painful marriage, or it’s the other way around: he gets a great wife but rotten and painful in-laws, in which case, he’ll need to content himself with the thought that, the good part of this marriage cancels out the rotten part. But the man who gets it the easiest is the one who brings into his house a woman who is totally useless. A nothing. A zero. A simple, simple- minded woman. A useless woman.

But I hate the smart ones! I simply loathe that sort! Oh, Zeus, spare me! I hope I’ll never end up with a woman in my house who’s cleverer than women should be!  Aphrodite plants a lot more evil schemes in the minds of those clever ones! The dumb ones are kept on the straight and narrow because of their… rather diminutive wit. And, if you do get a wife, give her no slave. Instead, give her animals. Give her dumb brutes for companions. Wild beasts that you can’t talk to and they can’t talk back. Give a bitch of a wife a servant and what have you got? The two talk together inside, hatch up all sorts of evil plans and then the servant goes off and carry those plans outside the house!

Source. Translation by George Theodoridis.

It made me think of Iago, so I read the opening scenes of Othello again – and my jaw kept dropping with amazement. I’d forgotten how incredibly raw it is, and I didn’t even know before how familiar it is.

In the first scene, Iago and Roderigo come in in mid-conversation, and a strikingly sleazy conversation it is. They both dislike Othello and they talk about it for awhile, then…

RODERIGO What a full fortune does the thicklips owe

If he can carry’t thus!

IAGO Call up her father,

Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight,

Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,

And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,

Plague him with flies: though that his joy be joy,

Yet throw such changes of vexation on’t,

As it may lose some colour.
RODERIGO Here is her father’s house; I’ll call aloud.

IAGO Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell

As when, by night and negligence, the fire

Is spied in populous cities.

RODERIGO What, ho, Brabantio! Signior Brabantio, ho!

IAGO Awake! what, ho, Brabantio! thieves! thieves! thieves! Look to your house, your daughter and your bags! Thieves! thieves!

BRABANTIO appears above, at a window

BRABANTIO What is the reason of this terrible summons? What is the matter there?

RODERIGO Signior, is all your family within?

IAGO Are your doors lock’d?

BRABANTIO Why, wherefore ask you this?

IAGO ‘Zounds, sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on your gown;

Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;

Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,

Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you: Arise, I say.

BRABANTIO What, have you lost your wits?

RODERIGO Most reverend signior, do you know my voice?

BRABANTIO Not I what are you?

RODERIGO My name is Roderigo.

BRABANTIO The worser welcome:

I have charged thee not to haunt about my doors:

In honest plainness thou hast heard me say

My daughter is not for thee; and now, in madness,

Being full of supper and distempering draughts,

Upon malicious bravery, dost thou come

To start my quiet.

RODERIGO Sir, sir, sir,–

BRABANTIO But thou must needs be sure

My spirit and my place have in them power To make this bitter to thee.

RODERIGO Patience, good sir.

BRABANTIO What tell’st thou me of robbing? this is Venice;

My house is not a grange.

RODERIGO Most grave Brabantio,

In simple and pure soul I come to you.

IAGO ‘Zounds, sir, you are one of those that will not serve God, if the devil bid you. Because we come to do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

BRABANTIO What profane wretch art thou?

IAGO I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

BRABANTIO Thou art a villain.

IAGO You are–a senator.

See what I mean? Racism and misogyny in the crudest possible terms. It’s vile stuff, and meant to be. Iago is one of the most horrible characters Shakespeare ever came up with, and he reveals him as such right at the beginning. But doesn’t it sound familiar? Iago would have loved Twitter. Think of all the high school girls he could have bullied into suicide.

But what an opening for a play, eh?



  1. Rodney Nelson says

    I don’t know where the comment comes from, but I’ve always liked the idea that if Hamlet and Othello were put in each other’s plays the action would have been quite short. Hamlet would have quickly seen through Iago’s posturing and Othello would have killed Claudius after speaking with the ghost.

  2. Tim Harris says

    The point where the balance changes in the play, where Iago sends Othello over the tipping point, is where Iago comes out with a disgusting racialist insult which he promptly pretends not to have intended – Othello dismisses him and then turns to the audience to express his perturbation.

  3. Timon for Tea says

    It is interesting how much time and energy energy has been spent attempting to psychologise, Iago, to explain away his wickedness with reference to some other deeper motivation or trauma, but I think that with the Taliban and (to some degree) the internet many people are beginning to recognise that hatred really can be its own goal and satisfaction – evil is real (even if the Evil One isn’t). Shakespeare always gets there first.

  4. briane says

    Ever read Euripides’s Hippolytus?

    No, and after reading it, I strangely feel that ignorance was bliss. What vile crap!
    Iago is a dick!

  5. briane says

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

    Le Français a un je ne sais quoi….Que vive les frites de la liberté.

  6. Lyanna says

    It’s good that you’re posting this kind of thing. So many people in the modern world have this notion that gender oppression is something soft and essentially harmless, especially compared to racial oppression, or other types of oppression.

    It’s not soft. It’s vicious and hateful and an utter denial of humanity.

  7. says

    Timon – that’s almost eerie. Most of the time I totally disagree with you, but that comment is exactly what I’ve been thinking. I had long thought Othello was a little flawed by the emptiness of Iago’s hatred. Reading it again yesterday I simply recognized it. It’s just that weird random undermotivated but no less savage hatred that some people encourage themselves to indulge. Obsessive hatred as an end in itself.

  8. Jenora Feuer says

    Yes, back when we did Othello in high school, my English teacher made notes of just how many times Iago uses animal references for people, like that ‘old black ram is tupping your white ewe’ line. He was indeed a vicious, hateful little man. Your comment about how he ‘would have loved Twitter’ is about right. Iago was a bit of a griefer, only happy when he was making other people more miserable than he was.

  9. says

    Yeh. I knew all that…But the difference is that now I recognize it. It’s the Taliban, and it’s Internet misogynists and shit-talkers. It’s weird and tragic being able to recognize it. I’d prefer a world where it was so rare that most people couldn’t recognize it.

  10. says

    Iago has been described as “motiveless malignancy” but as you say malignancy needs no motive except itself. Also, Iago appears on the surface an honest fellow, a bit of a rough diamond, a good bloke to have a drink with – all the other characters like and trust him. His dark side is expressed to his dimwit ally Rodrigo and in asides to the audience. So the hateful rape-threatening internet goblins may be the goodfellas in the flesh world.

  11. says

    I used to share the view that the motivelessness of the malignancy was a bit of a plot hole. Boy have I changed my mind. There are people for whom malignancy is what makes life meaningful. What more motive do they need?!

    It’s really interesting that Shxpr reveals Iago’s dark side at the very beginning – also that some of the audience wouldn’t have seen it as such. It comes very close to being typical – cf. Middleton, Marston, Kyd. In other words it’s like now. To some people, misogynist sexual disgust is repulsive, while to other people it’s just normal, or just funny.

    Hamlet is almost as bad in the “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” exchange. Again, that’s interesting. It can be read as just more of Hamlet’s wit, but I think it’s meant to show how warped he is at that point. (Not a very strained reading, given what happens in the next two scenes.)

  12. Tim Harris says

    And have you noticed, Ophelia, how Iago assumes that the audience is on his side…? It’s not so much Shakespeare as Iago himself who reveals his dark side and expects the audience whom he addresses to nevertheless like him…

  13. says

    Tim, yes I have…and Iago’s not wrong. His kind of thing was very popular in Shakespeare’s day – as it is again now.

    It never stops surprising me what a point Shakespeare made of this. In play after play after play he shows up men who think like Iago. His contemporaries just showed men like Iago being right.

  14. says

    It’s not so much Shakespeare as Iago himself who reveals his dark side and expects the audience whom he addresses to nevertheless like him…

    I think that’s more of a dramatic convention. Shakespeare’s villains do that – Edmund in King Lear and Richard III, for instance, declare their own villainy. The audience has to know their villainy in order to appreciate their double-dealing.

  15. says

    But Shxpr also uses it – as more than just the information, I mean. Edmund too is written so that he sees himself as justified. He and Iago are more sophisticated versions of the admitted villain than Richard III is (to put it mildly). Edmund in particular kind of traps us…but really they both do.

  16. Timon for Tea says

    “Timon – that’s almost eerie. Most of the time I totally disagree with you, but that comment is exactly what I’ve been thinking. ”

    Ha! The power of art!

  17. Tim Harris says

    I think it is a mistake, rosiebell, to dismiss conventions as being, shall we say, merely conventional, or merely designed to solve in the easiest possible way some minor technical problem (as you seem to suggest), without addressing the question of their significance and force, and without looking into how playwrights use them in particular cases. The relationship between actor and audience is always one of mingled intimacy and distance, and the ‘convention’ of addressing the audience in soliloquy (something that is not to confined to the villains of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama) exploits this relationship in very interesting ways; Shakespeare certainly uses the convention, and is not used by it, in an interesting, and chilling, way where Iago is concerned, as well as where Leontes, Lear, Macbeth, Falstaff, Othello himself and a host of other characters are concerned. And so do Marlowe, Middleton (Allwit’s opening soliloquy in ‘A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’ is one of the greatest comic speeches in English theatre) and Jonson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *