Friday, July 29, 2016

Othello revisited: a character sketch of Emilia

Almost exactly a year ago, we posted a commentary on Othello, and recently May-Lee asked in a comment if someone might be able to write a character sketch of Emilia, the villain Iago's long-suffering wife. Our president, Frances, has obliged with the following fascinating post.

My impression of Emilia is of a warm-hearted and spirited woman unfortunately trapped in a miserable marriage. She is confident with Othello and Desdemona, her “employers”, and is capable of answering back sharply when Iago provokes her. She is kindly concerned for Cassio and readily tries to help him.

Her first appearance is on arrival at Cyprus. Iago’s reception of her after a period of separation is hardly welcoming; he accuses her of being a nagging wife and talking too much, and goes on to speak disrespectfully of women in general. What a contrast with the joyful reunion between Othello and Desdemona.

With no possibility of divorce and no financial independence, Emilia has to obey Iago. She cannot imagine why he so eagerly wants Desdemona’s special handkerchief, but when it comes by accident into her possession she relinquishes it to him. Once again he shows his surly nature and treats her very rudely. Their relative status is reflected when she says to herself: “I nothing, but to please his fantasy.”

Emilia is very fond of Desdemona, but she dare not say what she has done with the handkerchief, despite Desdemona’s extreme distress. Emilia’s low opinion of men is strengthened by Othello’s outburst of rage, but she wonders how he could possibly be jealous of Desdemona and stoutly defends her mistress against any imputation of wrongdoing with Cassio.

When Othello directly accuses Desdemona of whoring, Emilia is appalled and stresses the cruelty and unfairness of such a charge. Furiously she realises that Othello has been misled; as she thinks: just as “someone” misled Iago into thinking that she herself had been unfaithful with Othello. But even while discussing all this with Iago it does not occur to her that Iago is the instigator. She is too honest to imagine how anyone could so dupe another.

The scene with Desdemona in the bedroom shows Emilia’s fondness for the younger woman as she tenderly helps her to prepare for the night, and their conversation highlights the differences between their life experiences and attitudes: Emilia the realist and Desdemona the romantic idealist. Emilia believes that women’s feelings and senses are equal with men’s and that they should be able to retaliate in kind to bad treatment or infidelity (even though in fact circumstances prevent this for her.)

She is genuinely grief-stricken on discovering the dying Desdemona. At first incredulous, she finally understands Iago’s role in these events and turns her fury first on her husband: ‘May his pernicious soul rot half a grain a day’ and then on Othello.

With her heart breaking for Desdemona and the full realisation of Iago’s villainy she at last grasps the significance of the handkerchief episode. Even as her husband murders her, she attests to Desdemona’s innocence and love for Othello.