Today’s Guest Hoyden is longtime Hoydenizen orlando.
“Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell / And have their palates both for sweet and sour, / As husbands have.”
In Othello, it is Emilia, unfortunate wife of the villainous Iago, who delivers the woman’s equivalent of Shylock’s more famous “Has not a Jew eyes?” speech.
Such is the focus on the central couple that it is easy to forget that two husbands kill their wives in this play. Othello, through modern eyes, is a desperately typical story of domestic violence and spousal murder. Desdemona, so trusting in her husband’s love, despite his increasing controlling behaviour and abusiveness, that she does not see what others fear for her. Emilia, criticised, ordered about, and eventually slain by a husband whose viciousness she mistakenly thinks is only directed at herself. While Othello is still in the first flush of matrimonial devotion, we see Iago publicly shaming Emilia for her supposed shrewishness, even though nothing in her behaviour suggests he is justified. He treats her with nothing but curtness bordering on brutality and, like Desdemona, Emilia takes it stoically. She takes it when it is directed at herself, but when slander and violence are heaped upon another woman, nothing will silence her angry protest.
Shakespeare loves to create situations where there are two women, one a doormat-like good girl who is horribly abused, the other more outspoken, who bewails the appalling treatment of the good girl, and the frustration of women’s inability to get justice from men. We see this motif tracing a path throughout the whole of Shakespeare’s career, through Two Gentlemen of Verona (Sylvia defends Julia), Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice defends Hero), Measure for Measure (Isabella defends Mariana), All’s Well That Ends Well (Diana defends Helena) all the way to The Winter’s Tale (Paulina defends Hermione), one of his very last plays. Of all these, I am singling out Emilia because when she follows this pattern she makes herself the most heroic of all, dying because of her determination to clear Desdemona’s name (as the others clearly would have been willing to do, though they are saved by the comic genre).
Emilia has no special reason to be sympathetic to, or supportive of, Desdemona. Called upon to be her servant after the glamorous young socialite takes the astonishing, to her peers, step of marrying Emilia’s husband’s commanding officer, there is nothing to suggest that the two have known each other for long, or that Desdemona has done anything for Emilia. She hands over her mistress’ lost handkerchief to Iago, who has begged her to steal it, without considering whether there will be damaging consequences. But in the one conversation between the two women alone together, there is a tender frankness, humour and empathy that, had either of them experienced it in their marriage, their stories would have been happy ones. In this scene Emilia tries to cheer the frightened and confused Desdemona with the advice that men should hear, but women only dare tell one another:
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
By the end of this scene the two have attained the kind of closeness that makes Emilia’s final sacrifice for her believable. Over and over again Shakespeare’s women put their friendship with another woman before everything else: husband, father, King or birthright. And to do so, they speak out even when being commanded into silence, even when threatened, abused or risking death.
“Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home”
It is only when Emilia finally does the things Iago accuses her of: makes noise, contradicts and berates her husband, that she secures everybody’s admiration. Her husband orders her to be silent, calls her names, yells at her to confine her voice to the home, where a woman belongs, and each time she defies him. In the moment when she willingly takes on the mantle of disobedient wife, then she becomes a genuine crusader for truth and justice. That is when she astonishes everyone with her courage and virtue. In that moment, and only through a direct rejection of the expected behaviour of a virtuous wife, she becomes the hero in a play that was in danger of having none.
Footnote: Anyone interested in thinking further about the way modern women might respond to the gender and class issues Emilia reveals should look at Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter examining Zoe Wanamaker’s performance in the role, in her book Enter the Body (which also wins for having one of my favourite titles ever).