Just a theory
The role of Emelia in Othello.
Before I begin expounding on this thought, let me first say that I am not a Shakespearean “Scholar”. I am just a teacher who loves teaching Shakespeare on the off-chance that one of my students will get bitten by the bug and want to study and read more of the man than just the set works that he or she has to cover for exam purposes.
Having taught Othello to matric classes for the past 4 years, I have developed a few theories of my own about Shakespeare’s “bit” actors, and Emelia is hardly a leading lady.
Further, since I was a schoolboy myself, and studying and loving Shakespeare throughout my public exam years at school and then on through university, one of the things I have come to know about Shakespeare is that he did not create characters simply to use up his daily quota of ink and paper. And he never wrote a line that did not have significance.
There are many instances where characters and what they say seem obscure and it is only when we peel away layer after layer of the onion skin that we begin to see just how wonderfully convoluted Shakespeare’s genius actually was.
So why do we readers of, actors of, directors of Shakespeare dismiss Emelia as a somewhat dilly, overtly loyal and pretty dumb extra in Othello?
I am beginning to think that she was more than that. A lot more than that. I am beginning to think that, maybe, she is nearly as big a villain in the piece as is Iago.
They are, after all husband and wife.
But in Iago, Shakespeare has his villain – and a very nasty piece of work he is too! Why would he need another? But we must also be wary when assessing Iago’s character. That he was evil is beyond question – he is by far the wickedest character Shakespeare ever developed – and that includes beauties like Richard III.
But, although he is evil, he is not terribly bright. The plot to make Othello jealous of the relationship between Cassio and Desdemona is hardly rocket science. They are after all a group of people cooped up in the fort on a remote island and they have to interact with each other daily. Being members of the Nobility and Officer Class, they would not have had much interaction with the hoi poloi of Cuprus. For Iago to manufacture situations where Desdemona and Cassio would be seen close together and to engineer situations where Othello and he would be able to observe this from a short distance away would have been easy enough.
If Shakespeare had decided to make Iago wise as well as evil – his evil genius, then he would have planned and executed his plot, and he would have gotten away with it. But he didn’t. He left too many “i”s undotted and “t”s uncrossed; in fact withe the altercations between Roderigo and Cassio, his scheming was pretty clumsy, and he could easily have been rumbled at his own game had others chanced upon the protagonists before he did. The murder of Roderigo is necessary to conceal the fact that he had set the entire thing up as a wounded Roderigo would have undoubtedly spilled the beans whilst receiving medical attention.
We can only guess at Iago’s ultimate fate after Othello’s death, but Gratiano’s threat that “Torment will ope your lips” does not bode well for him.
That having been said, I still don’t believe that we can simply dismiss Emelia as a dumb bit actor who acts as something of a foil to the too-good-to-be-true Desdemona?
I think there are a number of reasons for saying this. But for my theory to work, I need to be sure of my stances as taken above – i.e. that Shakespeare was never frivolous in his character creation nor in penning the lines he had them speak.
So, let’s look at a few of Shakespeare’s other “bit” actors.
The porter in Macbeth is an example. He comes on stage, he gets a few laughs and he is never seen again. So why is he there?
To relieve the tension created by the murder of Duncan surely. I’d agree – but does he have another role? Why is he used as a chronological pace-setter. Why does he refer to so many “news” items of the day? He is placing the writing and initial production of Shakespeare’s play in a temporal context – and he is also throwing the actual events of the play’s time – the reality of the death of the historical Duncan - into turmoil. Shakespeare uses him to underline the lack of reality in the play. The historical Macbeth was not a ”baddie”. He wasn’t a “goodie” either – he was a pretty run-of-the-mill Scottish Nobleman of the time – as involved in pillage and plunder as all of his contemporaries. Duncan was not a saint – as he is portrayed in the tragedy. In fact, the historical Duncan probably deserved a jolly good assassination, and there were any number of nobles queueing up to do the honours.
So the Porter not only brings some well deserved comic relief after the climax of the murder, but by throwing the historical context of the play well out of context, Shakespeare uses him to tell the audience of the day that he is fully aware that the events of the play are not historically correct. It is, after all a piece of theatre – not a doctoral thesis.
Simple characters in Henry The Fourth Parts I and II and Henry the V, like Pistol and Bardolf have roles to play in showing us the true character of Prince (later King) Henry – the wanton boy turned wily (and pretty merciless) politician. He uses these bit actors to create situations where the future Henry V gives a sneak preview of his true colours.
So what about Emelia?
Let’s look at Othello first. When we first meet him he has just married Desdemona. Shortly before his death he has murdered the same woman. Estimates vary, but the general consensus seems to be that the elapsed time between these two events is about two weeks. Yet, in that short space of time we get to know him pretty well. And we admire many aspects of his character whilst deploring others.
One of the undeniable facts is that Othello is a soldier – and a damned good one. He would have had to be to have the entire Venetian council put aside any racial prejudices they may have had (and at the time the Venetians were not particularly well-disposed towards Moorish Muslim invaders – indeed the Turks were busy trying to overrun Cyprus) and appoint him as the leader of their army and entrust him with the protection of so precious a jewel as Cyprus.
But he was first and foremost a mercenary soldier and had been one since he was about 7-years-old. And, having lived in the company of soldiers for about 33 years, it would be justifiable to assume that he was not a virgin when he met the fair Desdemona.
He would probably have been introduced to camp-followers as an adolescent and it is to his credit that he managed to hang on to most of his loot over the years as the latter are well-known for trying to separate as much of it as possible from their “marks”. It would also be reasonable to assume that having had these as his role-models for relationships between men and women, it would not have been that difficult for Iago to persuade him that Desdemona was capable of infidelity – even though he is totally smitten by her in the early action of the play.
If the old adage “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” holds any water whatever, is there not perhaps some truth behind the rumours that caused Iago to speculate on his wife’s fidelity where his boss is concerned?
When we first meet Emelia, she is summarily pressed into service as Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting . There is no discussion with her about this. It is an order given and expected to be obeyed. But Othello did not command Emelia – he commanded Iago. He had the right to order Iago into battle, and with it the perils of an uncertain sea-voyage that preceded the expected warfare. He did not have the right to demand the same of Emelia. Just because Desdemona had chosen to accompany her husband on his campaign to relieve Cyprus, did this mean that Emelia automatically had to do the same? Or did he feel that this was the natural order of things? Did he feel that this was well within his rights - because Emelia was (or had been) his mistress?
And if that were the case, what would Emelia have thought?
Here is the man who, according to rumour in Venice, was having an affair with Emelia, now telling her to be a servant to the woman he has secretly married.
Would any normal woman not feel somewhat “scorned”? And would any normal woman not perhaps seek to avenge herself for that scorn?
And look at the lady to whom she has been so unilaterally indentured.
Desdemona is enigmatic to say the least. She is on the one hand the ultimate “goody two-shoes” and on the other a rebellious daughter who defies her father and marries a significantly older man in a partnership that she knows her father would not find acceptable.
As a character Emelia hardly features again (although she is always in the wings, and has ample opportunity to observe the interactions between Desdemona and Othello) until she happens to find Desdemona’s handkerchief. Most of the action concerns Iago’s plot against Othello and the hapless fates of Roderigo and Michael Cassio.
But, Emelia is married to Iago, and she cannot help but realise that his behaviour towards Othello is sycophantic in the extreme – she cannot be unaware of his true feelings towards his commander. If she was not aware of this then Shakespeare would have created one of the most stupid characters of any of his plays. And I don’t think he did.
To get revenge on Othello, Emelia would only have to keep quiet about the whereabouts of the handkerchief – which she does; right until the very end.
I do not believe that she was as evil as Iago. I do not believe that she was evil at all, but she was capable of enjoying the disruption of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. And I am sure that she was aware of Iago’s part in this disruption, although she may not have shared his wish for total destruction – and he, being the man that he was, would surely not have shared his full intent.
If she indeed was – as seems to be the commonly held view – a loyal and obedient servant to and confidant of Desdemona, why didn’t she tell her about the handkerchief way before things got so out of hand?
Was she frightened of Iago? Was she so frightened of him that she would remain mum on the subject of the handkerchief even though she knew that it was tearing Desdemona’s fragile marriage apart? The interactions between Iago and Emelia – few and far between as they are – do point to a degree of wariness on her part, but nothing that could be interpreted as abject fear. The banter in Act II Sc i contains sufficient evidence to confirm that Emelia gives as good as she gets in her chats with Iago.
She was present throughout the whole scene (Act III Sc iv) where Othello demands the handkerchief from Desdemona – there is no instruction from either Othello or Desdemona for her to leave and there is no stage instruction from Shakespeare to absent her from the conversation. She must surely have known that the handkerchief in question was the one that Iago had taken from her. Why did she not just tell them that Iago had it? It would have spoiled the play, but exonerated Emelia.
Or is the demise of the relationship (though not the persons) what she wanted to see?
We know, from her discussion on the matter with Desdemona, that she was quite willing to prostitute herself if the price was right . She would willingly commit adultery if she could help her spouse in the process. Had she indeed already made Iago a cuckold in order to make him a Lieutenant? Was that perhaps what she had been doing for Iago by having the rumoured affair with Othello? Had Desdemona’s arrival on the scene and marriage to her “partner” gone and spoiled everything? After all the status of wife of a Lieutenant (a second in command) carries with it a lot more prestige than that of wife of a mere Ensign.
And what about Desdemona’s death? She is truly horrified by what Othello has done. She is remorseful and willing to confront Iago once she realised the full extent of his complicity in Desdemona’s death (no fear shown here). The fact that it leads to her own death is not an act of martyrdom on her part but rather a rash act to try to protect his plot by Iago. That she shuns Iago’s sword in this final act of the play is proof, again, that she was not a weak and cowardly wife. By this time she must have known that Iago was desperate to conceal his part in the death of Desdemona, and she would have known that a desperate Iago is a dangerous Iago.
But by the time Iago kills Emelia it is too late, the cat is already out of the bag.
Equally too late is Emelia’s revelation about the handkerchief, which, if she had chosen to, she could have mentioned to either or both of the tragic characters on several occasions.
So was she really that stupid? I don’t think so. Yet she would have had to have been if the Emelia of common acceptance – the Emelia who was totally devoted to Desdemona – is the real Emelia.
Was she a woman scorned? Methinks she was; one whose own revenge for that scorn went far further than she ever intended.