Shakespeare and the second person singular

I wrote a column for the Freethinker a couple of days ago about Shakespeare and undermotivated evil, via Hamlet and then Iago, with an observation on one way Shakespeare violated the conventions of his time.

There’s one Shakespeare character, though, who stands out for the flimsiness of his stated reasons compared to the malice and cruelty of what he does. He’s pissed off that he didn’t get a promotion, maybe possibly his wife has the hots for Othello. Othello is a good guy and that makes Iago look bad – blah blah. He claims all these at different times, so they cancel each other out, and seem like rationalizations instead of reasons. Really he just does it because he wants to, and he can. Desdemona and Othello are happy, so he’ll make them not happy, and not alive either.

It’s interesting how he goes about it, because it’s a classic literary theme, especially popular in Shakespeare’s time but still pervasive. It’s the theme that’s behind the phenomenon of “honour” killings. It’s all that, except that Shakespeare does what no one else does, and turns the theme on its head.

The theme is the happily married man who discovers that his wife is a whore. Remember the frame narrative of The 1001 Nights? It’s that. The Agamemnon? That. Most of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies? That.

Shakespeare used the theme in several of his plays, but in nearly all of his, the jealous husband is wrong. The later the play, the more wrong the jealous husband is. By the time we get to A Winter’s Tale, he’s such a jackass that he makes up the story that his wife is cheating on him out of thin air.

Have you ever noticed that? I was helped to realize it by reading a lot of Shakespeare’s contemporaries: with them the husband was never wrong, the wife was always a whore. Given what Shakespeare did with that theme, I have a feeling he found the theme annoying. That’s odd, isn’t it.

Othello is nudged into it by Iago, but he’s nearly as bad. He believes the poison Iago tells him, and he refuses to trust Desdemona – and that’s bad.

It’s so bad that Shakespeare gives the job of telling him off to a woman, Iago’s wife. It’s a violation of every possible Jacobean convention: she is officially Othello’s inferior in every way – married to his subordinate, and a woman. Yet she denounces him, and not only that, she addresses him as “thou” – the most insultingly outrageous thing a subordinate can do. She goes from “you” to “thou” in an instant, when he calls Desdemona a whore.

OTHELLO:  She’s, like a liar, gone to burning hell:
‘Twas I that kill’d her.
EMILIA: O, the more angel she,
And you the blacker devil!
OTHELLO: She turn’d to folly, and she was a whore.
EMILIA: Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil.
– Act 5, scene 2

See that? Phewwwww that’s some outrageous behavior. Thou is for intimates, but it’s also for subordinates. However intimate they may be, a subordinate mustn’t thou a superior. Falstaff does it to Hal, if I remember correctly, but that’s part of Falstaff’s transgressiveness. Horatio never thous Hamlet, despite their deep friendship. Falstaff is being a bad boy. Emilia’s not doing that, she’s doing something much fiercer.

Shakespeare liked the effect so much he did it all over again in The Winter’s Tale.

Act 3 scene 2:

Leontes, the king, has accused his wife Hermione of adultery in court, then news arrives that their young son has died of grief, then Hermione faints and is carried out (the guy rushes things in this scene, I have to say) – and her attendant, Paulina, goes with her, then in a few minutes (during which Leontes berates himself for being such a shithead) she comes back. She’s a high class servant – upper class, but a servant to the royals – and she lets the king have it:

[Re-enter PAULINA]

  • Paulina. Woe the while!
    O, cut my lace, lest my heart, cracking it,
    Break too.
  • Paulina. What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
    What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling?
    In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
    Must I receive, whose every word deserves
    To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny
    Together working with thy jealousies,
    Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
    For girls of nine, O, think what they have done
    And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
    Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
    That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
    That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
    And damnable ingrateful: nor was’t much,
    Thou wouldst have poison’d good Camillo’s honour,
    To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
    More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
    The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
    To be or none or little; though a devil
    Would have shed water out of fire ere done’t:
    Nor is’t directly laid to thee, the death
    Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
    Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
    That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
    Blemish’d his gracious dam: this is not, no,
    Laid to thy answer: but the last,—O lords,
    When I have said, cry ‘woe!’ the queen, the queen,
    The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead,
    and vengeance for’t
    Not dropp’d down yet.

A torrent of thous, coupled to the harshest of insults – from a woman and a servant, to the king.

That dude Shakespeare was up to something.


  1. says

    This is something that we’ve sadly lost broad familiarity with, in English: the distinction between the singular thou/thee/thy/thine and ye/you/your/yours. Any German speaker or Romance language speaker is still familiar with it, but not us evolved English speakers.

    Thanks for mentioning this. It reminds me to reread (or re-listen 🙂 Shakespeare with more focus on the exact language being used.

  2. latveriandiplomat says

    @1 In German, at least, the distinction is muddled by the fact that the singular pronouns are only for use with intimates, good friends and family (and pets IIRC). The plural form is still commonly used for a single person in other situations.

    Not to take anything away from good old Will, but the false accusation (in general not specifically of women accused of adultery) is a common trope of medieval romance. A famous example of a woman specifically accused of adultery is Constance in The Man of Law’s Tale This is not to say that Shakespeare wasn’t unique (and admirable) in using this trope consistently over the popular “real adultery/revenge” trope, but just to be clear that this was something that existed in the sources he drew on for inspiration.

  3. latveriandiplomat says

    @1 about 2. Sorry, I didn’t read carefully, the intimate/subordinate aspect of the pronouns was precisely what Ophelia was getting at, so never mind about that bit. Sorry.

  4. Athywren - Frustration Familiarity Panda says

    There are a lot of things Shakespeare did that are pretty interesting. Apparently the character of Romeo was meant to be pretty thoroughly hated too… something about his comments early in the play – he asks where they should eat, suggesting he’s thinking of a restaurant or something, meanwhile, at the time of the performance, apparently there wasn’t all that much in the way of food for the common people. And having looked back on it since hearing that, the play actually makes a lot more sense if you’re not thinking of him as the hero. (I can’t remember where I first heard this, or I’d quote it. The associated voice in my head sounds like Mary Beard’s though, which is a little confusing, but if accurate it narrows it down to a handful of sources.)
    Shakespeare: secret feminist?
    Well ok, maybe not… but it’s interesting. I’ll have to remember to keep an eye and an ear open next time I watch something Shakespearean, to see if I can pick up on any of these things.

  5. Don Quijote says

    Ophelia; It appears that Barry Duke has shut down the comments on your column at Feethinker. Not surprising as the usual odious liars and bullshiters have turned up. There are a couple of supporters there though.


  6. says

    I’ve always held that if someone believes their wife is cheating (let alone a whore) on the evidence of a misplaced piece of laundry and some bad-mouthing, he’s beneath contempt. Othello certainly has no feelings for his wife, whom he murders without a second thought.

    MrFancyPants@1: and it’s a right pain in the ass. Do a project in Germany or in France, and you’re constantly tap-dancing around how to address people who will be mortally offended if you get it wrong. Yay for the Dutch, who’ve abolished all that nonsense.

  7. karmacat says

    I skimmed through the comments. Ironically, they criticisms are about Ophelia criticizing others. It also seems they think that Ophelia’s criticisms are so powerful they can “destroy” people. In the article, Ophelia shows how women characters are criticizing men and looking down on them. And it certainly seems that these commenters are focusing on how Ophelia has criticized certain men (there are a couple of exceptions.) These are just some observations since I can’t really know the exact motivations of some of the commenters

  8. says

    Don Q @ 6 –

    Oh I know. They did that very soon after it was published.

    I wondered if they were coming from one place (since it looked so coordinated) so I googled, and of course they were. It looked coordinated because it was coordinated.

  9. says


    Do a project in Germany or in France, and you’re constantly tap-dancing around how to address people who will be mortally offended if you get it wrong.

    Hmm, I cannot say that I ever experienced this tap dance. I have lived and worked in Germany and distinction regarding when to use “sie” versus “du” was always very clear to me, in both professional/work situations, as well as informal interactions. Although yes, to be sure, if someone failed to use “sie” when it was expected, especially if there was a significant age or status difference, you could expect the offender to be roundly rebuked. However, the few times I witnessed that it was because the offense was intentional.

  10. says

    I once experienced some momentary confusion about this, as a third party observer. I was hitchhiking in France with my friend Claire, and a pleasant prosperous middle-aged guy gave us a lift and then after awhile picked up a young guy in military uniform. The two guys chatted, and I noticed the driver was tutoyering the soldier – and at first I thought ew, he’s treating him as an inferior, why, ew – but I listened more and realized they were talking military life as comrades and the soldier was tutoyering back. It was nice.

  11. says

    That’s unusual. There are a few situations where it’s easy, e.g. where there’s a clear policy about it (“wir sind hier alle per du”), but it’s often unclear when you’re supposed to slide into the “du” and who is supposed to propose this, or when you’re supposed to add a newcomer into the du-group, even if you don’t know them (well). If you speak with any kind of an accent, that makes it easier, as you’re not expected to get it right.
    Another difficulty comes in when you usually speak to someone in English, and then suddenly have to speak German (or French) to them (e.g. in the presence of a German or French customer), and you’re on the spot… Not to forget the awkwardness in German of addressing a set of people some of whom you know as “du” and some as “Sie”.
    And you can’t only put your foot in it by saying the wrong thing, but by failing to offer the “du” (being stand-offish), or by offering it (and thereby implying you’re the one who should be doing the offering).

  12. omar says

    OB @ 12:
    I am informed that when Japanese people converse, the forms of speech used have to take account of the relative social standing of the participants.
    The mother of an American woman I know is Japanese. Her father is American: a former GI. The couple met when he was in the US occupation army in Japan post 1945.
    At a party in San Francisco, the Japanese woman was introduced to a Japanese man visiting the city, and a linguistic problem of considerable magnitude immediately presented itself. She was a woman, and of lower Japanese rank than the man; so far so straightforward. But their respective family names revealed the big difficulty: her clan had defeated her interlocutor’s clan in a battle some 400 years before, rendering her superior.
    As there was no easy Japanese way out of this quandary, remainder of the conversation between these two native born Japanese speakers proceeded in English.

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