Lately I’ve been reading Macbeth and Othello.
I haven’t blogged because what can I possibly say about Shakespeare that hasn’t been said over the past 400 years? Both are magnificent plays.
The only thing I’d like to note is that the essays I’ve read about Othello tend to talk about Othello or Iago and neglect Emilia, who I think is a great character. For a large part of the play, she barely speaks and is mostly known as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. There are a few moments when her worldliness is meant to contrast with Desdemona’s saintliness, like when Desdemona asks if she would cheat on her husband for all the world:
Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
EMILIA The world’s a huge thing; it is a great price for a small vice.
In troth, I think thou wouldst not.
EMILIA In troth, I think I should; and undo’t when I had done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but, for all the whole world - ’Ud’s pity! who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.
Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world.
EMILIA Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’ th’ world; and having the world for your labor, ’tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right.”
(Act 4 scene 3)
Desdemona is a saint, in her innocence and purity, whereas Emilia, up till the final scene, is an ordinary person, who steals, who rages, and who may commit adultery if the price is right.
But look at her in the final scene. The passion! The rage!
She has no fear of Othello.
“EMILIA Do thy worst.
This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven
Than thou wast worthy her.”
(Act 5 scene 2)
He wants her to be silent.
Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. O gull! O dolt!
As ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed
I care not for thy sword; I’ll make thee known,
Though I lost twenty lives…”
What a line that is—“ Thou hast not half that power to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt”.
In her love of Desdemona, Emilia is capable of a love no other character in the play is capable of. She screams of Desdemona’s murder and several people come in, including Iago. Everyone’s shocked at the brutal, senseless crime but everyone’s reaction pales next to Emilia’s passionate rage and intensity.
With Cassio, mistress. Go to, charm your tongue.
I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak:
My mistress here lies murdered in her bed
EMILIA Villainy, villainy, villainy!
I think upon’t - I think I smell’t! - O villainy!
I thought so then. - I’ll kill myself for grief. -
O villainy, villainy!
What, are you mad? I charge you get you home.
Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak.
’Tis proper I obey him, but not now.
Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.”
Many times Iago tells her to shut up, to go home, but she doesn’t stop. Nothing can stop her exposing both Othello and her husband, and defending the honour of her late mistress—not Othello’s sword, nor Iago’s threats.
“EMILIA ’Twill out, ’twill out! I peace?
No, I will speak as liberal as the north.
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.”
From a seemingly very ordinary character, Emilia turns into one of the most heroic and tragic characters I have encountered. It is a powerful scene. Emilia’s love of Desdemona and rage at the injustice, the senselessness of it all give her a strength Iago has not expected and has not calculated.
And that is the problem with Iago—some people think of Iago as an intelligent villain, a criminal mastermind, even the central character of Othello, and in a way it’s true that he sets everything up and manipulates everyone in the play, but at the core he is a small, base, and pathetic villain driven by hatred and resentment. He reduces everything to something small and base, reducing love to lust and women to whores, because his mind is incapable of anything higher, greater. He delights in poisoning people’s vision and derives pleasure from transforming men into beasts, and (mostly) succeeds in bringing Othello down to his low level, but he has not calculated that Emilia, with her love of Desdemona and knowledge of the handkerchief, would turn against him and expose his schemes. In his smallness, he has not expected Emilia’s great courage.
What a magnificent play.