Finding Her Voice (4.2.110-150)
Until the middle of Act IV, Emilia is a somewhat invisible figure in the play. When she appears in Act II it is only as the foil for Iago's misogynistic comments while awaiting the landing of Othello's ship (2.1.105ff). After Cassio has been disgraced and seeks reinstatement, he goes first to Emilia because she has direct access to her mistress, Desdemona, and Emilia pledges her assistance (3.1.40ff).
The first indication that she might have some spit and determination and independence comes in her conversation with Desdemona after Othello has treated Desdemona ungenerously in 3.4.
"'Tis not a year or two shows us a man;/ They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;/ They eat us hungerly, and when they are full/ They belch us (3.4.103-106)."
Even though she gives this vivid picture to us, however, she doesn't develop the thought. It is just part of her strategy in 3.4 to try to convince her mistress that jealousy rather than a great matter of state is actuating Othello.
Speaking Her Mind
But Othello's intemperate rage against Desdemona in 4.2 finally evokes a response from Emilia after Othello has departed. Iago enters and Emilia speaks (4.2.110ff). Three characteristics of her speech are her repeated use of "whore," her suggesting a theory of what is behind Othello's rage, and her ignoring her husband's attempt to "interpret away" her interpretation. Each of these contributes to the awakening or strengthening of Emilia and paves the way for her central role in the final scene of the play. This an the next mini-essay consider these themes.
First, the language of "whoring." Othello's verbal onslaught in the previous lines has left Desdemona weak, confused and humiliated. She is filled with shock and incomprehension when she responds to Emilia's question: "How do you, madam? how do you, my good lady? (4.2.96)?" with a terse, "Faith, half asleep (4.2.97)." When someone has attacked us with verbal ferocity it feels as if we have been assaulted and pummeled by the words. Often we are taken by surprise and do not and cannot defend ourselves. Our defenses are down, and we fall victim to the attacker's ire.
Iago enters after Othello departs, and asks Desdemona what the matter is. Emilia, however, responds with hurt and anger of her own:
"Alas, Iago, my lord hath so bewhor'd her,/ Thrown such despite and heavy terms upon her,/ That true hearts cannot bear it (4.2.115-117)."
When Desdemona has trouble pronouncing the word, Emilia will jump in and explain further to Iago, "He (Othello) call'd her whore. A beggar in his drink/ Could not have laid such terms upon his callet (4.2.120-121)." Again, Emilia will not let the matter rest, "Hath she forsook so many noble matches?/ Her father? and her country? and her friends?/ To be call'd whore? Would it not make one weep (4.2.125-127)?" Then, a few lines later, she continues relentlessly, "Why should he call her whore (4.2.137)?" It is almost as if Emila is trying to fend off Othello's blows, in a delayed way, by repeating the same term he had used to abuse her. The "thrust" of Othello's verbiage of prostitution must be met by the "parry" of Emilia's use of the word.
Standing for Truth
Emilia's insistent use of the language of whoredom bespeaks an evolution in her character. Earlier in the play her first loyalty was to her husband Iago even though she is Desdemona's mistress. For example, when the magical handkerchief fell to the ground after it was "too little" (3.3.287) to quell the pain in Othello's throbbing brain, Emilia gave it to Iago because he had "a hundred times/ Woo'd me to steal it (3.3.292-293)," even though she knew that her mistress "so loves the token (3.3.293)." Indeed, in the next scene when Desdemona is searching frantically for the handkerchief and asks Emilia, "Where should I lose the handkerchief, Emilia (3.4.23)? she responds with a laconic and misleading, "I know not, madam (3.4.24)."
Now, by her repeated use of the term "whore," Emilia is distancing herself not simply from Othello but from the forms of dependency that have characterized her life. It is tempting to see this exchange as an example of her "switching loyalties" from the men in her life to the woman (Desdemona) to whom she owes allegiance, but I think something else is happening here. She is awakening to her duty and loyalty to the truth.
Thus, when Iago tries to quiet her in the last scene of the play with an imprecation, "Zounds, hold your peace (5.2.219)," Emilia responds with "'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 (5.2.219-222)."
In 4.2 Emilia learns, for the first time, how to speak "as liberal as the north (i.e., as freely as the north wind blows)." The first thing, then, in learning how to speak the truth is to use the words of untruth that have been thrown around with such careless disregard and malice and hold them up to scrutiny. 'Does it seem likely,' Emilia asks, 'if she would have forsaken home, hearth, family and friends so that she could be called a whore?' It is not simply "passing strange (cf.1.3.160)" to do this; it is more than "downright violence (cf.1.3.249)"; it would be fully inexplicable and contrary to anything one would have expected of Desdemona. Not even a drunken beggar who kept a whore would have lacerated her with such terms with which Othello slashed Desdemona.
This inexplicable treatment then leads Emilia to develop her own theory of Othello's behavior, which will be considered in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long