Thinking about the Capacity to be Hurt (5.2.163)
Othello draws his sword when Emilia refers to his marriage with Desdemona as her "most filthy bargain (5.2.157)." Emilia's use of "filthy" is a response to Othello's lauding of her husband Iago as a man who "hates the slime/ That sticks on filthy deeds (5.2.148-149)." Emilia is discovering her voice, and her use of the term "filthy" is a way of throwing back in Othello's face his implicit criticism of Desdemona. His drawing of the sword shows his increasing desperation as he tries to ratchet the level of conflict to a higher level.
But her reaction to the drawn sword takes us far beyond what we have even seen of Emilia in 4.3. She says,
"Do thy worst!/ This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven/ Than thou was worthy her....Thou has not half the pow'r to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt (5.2.159-163)."
This mini-essay focuses on the evolution of Emilia's character and the meaning of her line: "Thou has not half the pow'r to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt."
From Musing on Men to Standing for Truth
I have previously remarked that when Emilia began to emerge from her reserve, she did so by provocatively suggesting that women should not be blamed if they "stray" from their husbands, since their husbands are their teachers in this kind of iniquity (4.3.103). She didn't necessarily recommend infidelity; she did however provide a rationale, a defense, because wives also "see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have (4.3.94-96)."
Yet her tone in 5.2 is even more defiant. Evidence of this change of tone is her use of the vocabulary of truth rather than simply that of taste or pleasure. Her first use of the word occurs in 5.2, shortly after Desdemona dies. Othello's jumpiness, manifest in his asyndeton-laden speech in 5.2.91-101, continues. He says to Emilia, "Why, how should she be murd'red? [Emilia] Alas, who knows?/ [Othello] You heard her say herself, it was not I./ [Emilia] She said so; I must needs report the truth (5.2.126-128)."
Not only does her mention of the truth seem to send Othello over the edge ["She's like a liar gone to burning hell; 'Twas I that kill'd her"-- 5.2.129-130], but it betokens a new dimension in Desdemona's speech: from henceforth she will stand for Desdemona and stand for the truth. When Othello then viciously degrades Desdemona ["She was false as water"--5.2.134], she responds with her new word: "Thou art rash as fire to say/ That she was false. O, she was heavenly true (5.2.134-135)." Finally, when Emilia is breathing her last, after Iago stabbed her, she ends with truth: "So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true;/ So speaking as I think, alas, I die (5.2.250-251)." She thinks and speaks what is true in contrast to her husband Iago who "told him (Othello) what I thought" and "what he (Othello) found was apt and true (5.2.176-177)," but was actually a "lie, an odious, damned lie;/ Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie (5.2.180-181)." In short, Emilia has learned to speak the truth.
Nothing To Lose
The feeling, then, that comes over Emilia when the great warrior Othello is standing alone with her with brandished sword is that she has nothing to lose anymore. She can endure the thrust of the knife because Othello has not half the power to do her harm as she has to be hurt. In other words, Othello cannot harm her. Why? Because she is armed with the truth and because she has been harmed so significantly in the past that anything Othello can do to her will be mild indeed.
We should note the contrast between Emilia's apparently brazen confidence and the confidence of the Psalmist when faced with the same situation: threats from enemies. David will say, "In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me, 'Flee like a bird to the mountains (Ps. 11:1)?'" Or, in a later Psalm, "In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me (Ps. 56:4)?" That is, the Psalmist can deny fear in the face of impending war because he has a refuge in God. This is different from Emilia's claim. She takes no refuge in God; she makes no appeal to divine protection. She is protected because she is armed by truth and she has already suffered greatly.
Emilia's Capacity to be Hurt
Othello can't hurt her half as much as is her capacity to be hurt. But how does a person know her capacity to be hurt without having been stretched to that capacity? So, by whom has Emilia been hurt? By Iago's machinations and by the death of Desdemona. What must Iago have done to her to have led her to summarize her view of men in the following words:
"'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)"?
Iago demonstrates his misogyny and distrust when he harasses Desdemona while awaiting Othello's arrival in 2.1. He shows his fear of being cuckolded and suspicion of Emilia in this soliloquy at the end of 2.1. Surely Emilia has been the victim of his suspicion and his belch or expectoration.
Then, the death of Desdemona triggered something inside of her. Just as the sickness of a child or the failure of a relationship can relativize all other commitments and responsibilities one thinks one has to employer and friends, so the death of Desdemona riveted Emilia's mind and made her realize that getting to the bottom of her mistress' death was paramount for her life. She lost a part of herself in Desdemona's death, and she will end up singing the same Willow song Desdemona sang at her death when she dies.
These two losses, I contend, make her realize her capacity to be hurt. So, what harm can Othello's drawn sword inflict on her now? Not more than she already has lost, to be sure. In many ways her life is over, with her mistress having been murdered and her husband's scheme gradually unraveling before her eyes. People change the world when they realize that what they have to lose by so pursuing their cause is far less than what they have already lost in the maelstrom of life's fortunes. Caution is born when people realize how much they have to lose by pursuing a particular course. Emilia now has no such compunctions, no such twinges of conscience or hestiations to act.
Armed with this confidence, Emilia now does the unthinkable: she verbally attacks the lord of her mistress, Othello. As soon as she realizes that his capacity to hurt her is small, and that she sees the truth of the matter with blinding clarity, she can speak that truth to Othello:
"O gull, O dolt/ As ignorant as dirt!/ Thou has done a deed--/ I care not for thy sword, I'll make thee known,/ Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help!/ The Moor hath kill'd my mistress! Murther, murther (5.2.163-167)."
Now her words tumble over each other, as she gets to the bottom of this rancid plot. She is learning to speak "as liberal as the north (5.2.220)."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long