Raw Emotions II
Emilia and Iago in 5.2.170-195
When Iago, Montano and Gratiano enter in response to Emilia's desperate cry for help, she greets her husband with barely concealed scorn:
"O, are you come, Iago? You have done well,/ that men must lay their murthers on your back (5.2.169-170)."
She plows right ahead to confront her husband:
"Disprove this villain, if thou be'st a man./ He says thou toldst him that his wife was false./ I know thou dids't not; thou'rt not such a villain./ Speak, for my heart is full (5.2.72-175)."
We can see Emilia in our mind's eye, struggling to tamp down her overflowing emotions, not wanting to lose a grip on herself as she pursues this matter to the very quick.
As he does throughout the rest of the play, Iago slithers with his answer. "I told him what I thought, and told no more/ Than what he found himself was apt and true (5.2.176-177)." He told him (Othello) what he "thought." What is that supposed to mean? Is a "thought" a rationally-considered item? Is it just something that comes screaming through the mind at any time? Is it an evil plan to bring down the military leader of Venice? "I told him what I thought," is the kind of answer Iago would give Roderigo to deflect successfully Roderigo's accusation that Iago was not working on his behalf in securing Desdemona for him. And it would have worked with Roderigo.
And then Iago goes on to use the word "true," but it is not used in the sense that Emilia used it when she said she must report the truth of Desdemona's death. It is "relative" truth, because Iago claims that he told Othello only those things that Othello would find credible and "true." That is, truth for Iago is whatever he can convince anyone to believe. Truth for Emilia is to discover exactly what transpired leading to the horrendous murder of her mistress. His misleading use of two good and solid words ("thought" and "truth") is his means of deflecting responsibility from himself and onto Othello.
But Emilia will have none of it. Slicing through his prevarications as she did through Othello's weak justifications, she asks him two more questions. Iago is not used to someone asking him questions; indeed, this is the only place in the play where someone asks him three consecutive questions. And, Iago answers honestly. He says that he told Othello that Desdemona was false and false with Cassio.
Why does Iago answer her questions when to do so would be to expose him to discovery? Iago knows going into this last scene that "this is the night/ That either makes me, or fordoes me quite (5.1.128-129)." Indeed, near the end of the play, when questioned about his motivations for ensnaring Othello into his plot, he says, "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know;/ From this time forth I never will speak word (5.2.303-304)." Why does Iago answer her questions when he is perfectly capable of shutting up or giving misleading answers?
Shakespeare never tells us nor even gives us a hint. Perhaps it is because of Iago's temporarily being taken aback at the unexpected burst of his wife's energy; perhaps he, who always asks the questions, did not truly know how to respond to someone who now turned the tables on him; perhaps because she had been married to him for a time and had been "belched out" by him (cf. 3.4.106), she knew enough of her husband's psyche to burrow through Iago's layers of deception and malevolence. In any case, he answers that he was the one who was responsible for the story of Desdemona's alleged infidelity with Cassio.
Emilia's anger now knows no bounds. Iago admitted to telling Othello that Desdemona was false. She responds with two volcanic eruptions:
"You told a lie, an odious, damed lie;/ Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie (5.2.180-181)."
And, a few lines later:
"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 (5.2.190-193)!"
Emilia is beside herself with the mingled emotions of rage, hurt, resentment, and grief. She says the first sentence above by using the word "lie" as if it were a flaming dart, hurling it directly at Iago's well-protected breast, trying to breach his smug, sleazy and smarmy sense of self-satisfaction. Dart after dart follows, until one makes it through Iago's wall of self-defense and he answers meekly, "With Cassio, mistress (5.2.183)."
Now she has all she wants to know. It is all clear to her now. To use later language, she now knows without a doubt that Iago "hurt him,/ Iago set him on (5.2.328-329)." She will soon die, but her soul will "come to bliss," because she "speak(s) true (5.2.250)." The truth she speaks is not simply the "truth" of the "lies" that Iago spoke, but of his overreaching villainy that set on this most disastrous plot. Her six-fold screaming of that word, a brutal and direct assault on her husband, shows that she is near the edge of her own mental stability.
She can "smell" the villainy (5.2.191). Does she use this word because she smells also the sweet perfume of the dead Desdemona, that "cunning'st pattern of excelling nature, (5.2.11)" the "sweetest innocent/ That e'er did lift up eye (5.2.199-200)?" This was the smell that almost persuaded Othello to give up his plan to murder her, the balmy breath that would make Justice break her sword. Just as the Desdemona's lingering odor was the last "argument" against murder, so perhaps her odor now is the evidence of murder.
When Emilia says, "I thought so then (5.2.192)," to what is she referring? When is "then?" As she breathlessly expels her partial sentences in her rapid asyndetonic speech, maybe she is referring to her conversation with Desdemona in 4.2, where she mentions her jealousy. Perhaps she is ever so briefly chiding herself, thinking that if only she had been more assertive "then," when she thought that this would be the result, then it might not have happened.
Iago's villainy, however, is so great that she feels like killing herself for grief. Like Brabantio, who will be mentioned ten lines later, who died of grief because of his sadness over Desdemona and Othello's "match," grief might have completely undone Emilia if Iago's sword hadn't conveniently entered to end her life. The unending chain of horrors continues, and the audience has no escape from the engulfing tragedy that Emilia has so neatly exposed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long