Monday, August 26, 2013

Emilia's Tragic Truth in Othello

Emilia’s Tragic Truth

                      It astounds me to discover that Othello might be Shakespeare’s most perfect play.  The distressing tragedy of it has always before camouflaged this but now I see that the tragedy is so perfectly constructed, the end so dreadfully inevitable, Othello’s crashing fall from respected, admired, dependable, irreplaceable military leader to raving murderous wreck of a man is unstoppable from the very beginning.
Why? How can Iago succeed so flawlessly? The obvious reason is that Othello is a black man in a white society that is just beginning to develop its vicious racism. He’s an outsider, he is the Other. His skills are welcomed and necessary to Venice, or at least to its military power. Some have no qualms about his blackness. Others do. Iago exploits this and skillfully manipulates everyone involved.
The other reason is obvious too.  He is a man. He is married to a woman. That’s enough. In a society that is neurotically obsessed with the sexual oppression of women, it doesn’t take much to set the ball rolling. Iago knows this, being obsessed himself.
And so does Emilia. The tragedy is that Emilia’s clear-sighted outspokenness doesn’t perceive the truth in time.
We know nothing about the background of Emilia and Iago’s marriage but we find out early on, at the end of Act One, that he suspects her of infidelity with Othello:

And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office. I know not if ‘t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety (Act 1.3).

This reveals only Iago’s fixation and nothing at all about Emilia’s character or actions, to be sure, but in the next scene it is clear that Emilia has little cause for joy in her marriage.  Iago insults her publicly by accusing her of being wanton, garrulous, sneaky and slack in her housewifely duties.  Why she protests so little, saying only, “You ha’ little cause to say so,” and the puzzling, “You shall not write my praise,” and why Desdemona defends her more than she defends herself, is worth deeper study, as is the exchange that follows between Desdemona and Iago. Here it is enough to point out that Emilia is in a position to clearly see and personally experience the power that men in general, and her husband in particular, have to define and enforce the role of women.  Desdemona protests. Emilia does not.
That she doesn’t regard her marriage as hopeless we see when she takes Desdemona’s handkerchief and gives it to Iago because he wants it, but in the short exchange between the two it is easy to interpret the tone as wary on Emilia’s part and curt on Iago’s. “Chide”, “foolish”, “Oh, is that all?”, “what’s that to you?” and “Go, leave me” are not words of affection or ease.
How she views her marriage and men is soon made clear however in her bitter reaction to Desdemona’s claim that Othello is not jealous.

‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
They eat us hungrily, and when they are full,
They belch us (Act 3.4)

These lines are chilling, and very sad.  Iago harps on the infidelity of women. Emilia’s truth here is so much more to the point. But neither Iago nor Othello hear it. Only Desdemona, who doesn’t believe it. Not of her Othello.
After Othello has accused Desdemona of adultery, leaving her stunned, Emila and Iago (seemingly) try to support her. Emilia is angry, not so much at Othello as at what she immediately perceives as the cause behind his accusations: “some eternal villain/ Some busy and insinuating rogue,/ Some cogging, cozening slave…some most villainous knave,/ Some base, notorious knave, some scurvy fellow…” (Act 4.2).
It is revealing that there is so much pent-up bitterness in Emilia’s long string of insults towards the as yet unknown culprit. Iago should show some alarm here as he attempts to deny such a possibility, “Fie, there is no such man. It is impossible” (Act 4.2).
When she angrily declares that the rascal “should be lash[ed] naked through the world” Iago’s command to be quiet is countered by Emilia’s painful revelation that she knows that she too has been suspected by her husband of adultery:

O, fie upon them. Some such squire he was
That turned your wit the seamy side without,
And made you to suspect me with the Moor (Act 4.2).

Iago’s “You are a fool. Go to” can be spoken in different ways but the important thing here is that this exchange be given dramatic emphasis. It is one of the key exchanges in the play. Unfortunately in the versions I have seen, it just slips by, probably unnoticed by most viewers. Whether or not Emilia is subconsciously beginning to suspect that Iago is the culprit – Shakespeare gives no clear indication that this is so – Iago himself must be shown to be worried and angry over his wife’s astuteness. He is losing control over their marriage.
He doesn’t hear Emilia’s and Desdemona’s discussion on extramarital affairs that follows in the next scene but we certainly do. It is one of the most important passages in all of Shakespeare.
Desdemona, the loyal, faithfully loving wife cannot imagine having sex with anyone but her beloved Othello. Still, the very fact that she raises the question of whether or not there are women who “do abuse their husbands/ In such gross kind” (Act 4.3) shows that she accepts the possibility.
Emilia, worldly, observant, accused Emilia knows there are.  Though she reveals nothing about herself, one almost wishes that Iago’s accusation against her and Othello were true so that she had at least one nice lover, but probably not. Yet, though Desdemona and society deem it wrong, Emilia not only sees that “the wrong is but wrong i’ th’ world”. She sees the wrong as not only the women’s fault:

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.

Husbands are unfaithful, they restrict their wives’ lives, they beat their wives, they are stingy with money – Emilia is simply describing the accepted and standard behavior of husbands.  Maybe not all husbands, but enough to prove the societal gender structure. In a Shylock-like declaration Emilia asserts that women have the same sensual needs as men.  Why should men then turn to other women? And when they do, isn’t it their fault that their wives do the same? She thinks it is.
What a tragic but accurate view of marriage. Not only in Shakespeare’s day.
Within hours of this momentous analysis Emilia is dead. So are Desdemona and Othello, all victims of the violent, repressive gender structure in which the relationship between men and women is described as love but is based on a power struggle – with the cards stacked – that so often turns to hate because of a fanatical belief that one small part of the male anatomy gives him the right to own and oppress women because of one small part of the female anatomy.
Like Cassandra, Emilia speaks the truth.  The unwelcome truth. For this she must die.
Two marriages. One with the potential for happiness, even within this unequal and repressive gender structure. The other doomed because the husband is extreme even by this society’s gender norms and the wife too clear-sighted for her own good.
What fools these mortals be. So silly. So tragic.  Given the societal structures and attitudes, the gender roles and rules, the racism, the sexual oppression of both men and women, the neurotic obsessions of the society, how could the noble, just, eloquent and vulnerable Othello not be brought crashing down, taking the heroically loyal Desdemona and the heroically truthful Emilia with him?  How could Othello end any other way?

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.

 Films seen:
·         BBC, 1981. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Cast: Othello – Anthony Hopkins; Iago – Bob Hoskins; Desdemona – Penelope Wilton; Emilia – Rosemary Leach; Cassio - David Yelland; Roderigo – Anthony Pedley; Bianca – Wendy Morgan. Anthony Hopkins as a great actor and I really understand why he wanted to play Othello but it just doesn’t work. At times he’s as good as he can be, but mostly he’s too boisterous, too raging, too white. Other than that it’s a good production. I don’t see Iago as a giggling madman but Bob Hoskins does it very well. Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton is a surprise but does Desdemona just right.  This production – this play – leaves one feeling wrung out.
·         O, 2011. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Cast: O - Mekhi Phifer; Hugo - Josh Hartnett; Desi - Julia Stiles; Mike (Cassio) - Andrew Keegan; Emily - Rain Phoenix; Roger - Elden Henson; Desi’s father - John Heard; Brandy - Rachel Shumate; Martin Sheen. Translated into a 21st century basketball teen drama this works surprisingly well.  It’s flawed but powerful and sad.
·         Trevor Nunn, 1990 (release 2003) Directed by Trevor Nunn. Cast: Othello – Willard White; Iago – Ian McKellen; Desdemona – Imogen Stubbs; Emilia – Zoë Wanamaker; Cassio – Sean Baker; Roderigo – Michael Gandage; Bianca – Marsha Hunt. A powerful but flawed production.  The minimalist setting is good.  Wanamaker and McKellen are terrific.  The rest is mixed. A must see however.
·         Oliver Parker 1995. Directed by Oliver Parker. Cast: Othello – Laurence Fishburne; Iago – Kenneth Branagh; Desdemona – Irène Jacob; Emilia – Anna Patrick; Cassio – Nathaniel Parker; Roderigo – Michael Maloney; Bianca – Indra Ové. My favorite Othello at the moment. Branagh is just so good, and Fishburne’s Othello is the best.
·         The Globe production, 2012. Directed by Wilson Milam. Cast: Othello – Eamonn Walker; Iago – Tim McInnerny; Desdemona – Zoë Tapper; Emilia – Lorraine Burroughs; Cassio – Nick Barber; Roderigo – Sam Crane; Bianca – Zawe Ashton. I really don’t know what to think of this. It is fantastic to see this at the Globe (not in person, sadly but via DVD) and the play works so well here. As in Macbeth, which we did see there, the humor in the play comes out but somehow there’s too much humor here. Yes, Roderigo works well as a comic figure, Sam Crane does it well. The musicians are funny. But the tragedy takes over rather later than I would have liked.  Walker is too angry all the time so his anger at the end isn’t strong and tragic enough.  There is little passion for Desdemona but the lightheartedness with her at times works well.  Tapper is the best Desdemona I’ve seen. But McInnerny’s Iago just doesn’t work! All he does is shout and goof around. No, sorry, this was in many ways a disappointment.  One expects great things with great plays at the Globe. This didn’t live up to expectations. Still, it was fun to see.
·         Swedish production, Romateatern, 2012. Directed by Thomas Segerström. Cast: Othello – Peter Gardiner; Iago – Allan Svensson; Desdemona – Ida Wallfelt; Emila – Ia Langhammar; Cassio – Michael Ahlberg?; Roderigo – Thomas Segeström? (or the other way around, their roles weren’t specified). Peter Gardiner might just be the best Othello I’ve seen, even better than Fishburne? He’s certainly the handsomest anyway. Ida Wallfelt is possibly the best Desdemona too. She certainly sings the best.  Roderiga, whichever actor he was, is good too. Allan Svensson? Again I damn with faint praise.  He’s OK.  Emilia is coquettish and then hysterical – that doesn’t work for me at all.  The Medieval church ruins at Roma on the Baltic island of Gotland are a stunning place for Shakespeare. Unfortunately the TV cameras show almost nothing of this, or of the audience.  There is none of the intimacy of the Globe, in other words.  But the dark simple décor is strong.  Well worth seeing. Wish we’d been there.

Seen on stage: no.

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