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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: July ::
Re: What Emilia Knew
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0502.  Friday, 5 July 1996.

From:           Sydney Kasten <
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Date:           Thursday, 4 Jul 1996 14:00:06 +0200 (IST)
Subject: 7.0495 Re: What Emilia Knew
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0495 Re: What Emilia Knew

Poor Emilia! One of the few straightforward people in the play and taking all
this flak!  Is this Iago's ultimate revenge, letting her take the fall?

Actually we know a fair bit about her.  First of all she is taciturn.  When we
first meet her in Cyprus, after his throwaway condescending remark about
suffering her tongue, and Desdemona's rejoinder that "she has no speech", Iago
has to admit that "she puts her tongue a little in her heart and chides with
thinking". In the scene of light hearted banter that follows Emilia manages to
utter two words.  She really only finds her voice when fired by indignation as
when Iago confirms that Desdemona has been called a whore, and even then much
of her utterances or short phrases.  Even when she really gets going,
lambasting Othello after discovering the murder, most of what she says consists
of phrases that are half a line in length or less.

We also know that she is happy to give good news but has the misfortune of not
being listened to (Cassandra?).  After Cassio's ignominious dismissal by
Othello, Iago orders Emilia to get Cassio together with Desdemona for the
ostensible purpose of getting her to plead his case.  Instead, Emilia lets
Cassio know that Desdemona and Othello have discussed the matter, and that
Othello explained why he had to demote him, that he has not lost his faith in
him, "but protests he loves you and needs *no other suitor but his likings* to
take the safest occasion by the front to bring you in again." Clear enough:
Don't push it Cassio. Let nature take its course. But does he listen? Rather
than rejoicing at this good news and going home to get some sleep he proceeds
to enmesh himself in Iago's net.

When Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona she gives forthright answers. I
presume she expects to be believed.  Her outburst when Othello justifies the
murder on the basis of Desdemona's supposed adultery with Cassio is surely an
expression of her indignation that Othello didn't believe her simple factual
answers.

She understands male psychology.  She was able to handle her husband's
suspicions regarding her own fidelity well enough that their marriage remained
stable.  She could therefore be forgiven if she thought that Othello's jealousy
was par for the course, and that he would get over it has her husband did.

I can't see how any one could take the remarks during the unpinning scene other
than as banter designed to cheer up her despondent friend, with a little
moralizing against excesses of speech ("...thy solicitor shall rather die Than
give thy cause away." Des. to Cas. in the presence of Emi. Opening of III,iii.)
 thrown in for good measure?  The key word is not "such a deed", but rather
"for all the world": Cordelia's rebuke to her sisters.  I have just rewatched
Zoe Wanamaker's Emilia philosophizing to Imogen Stubbs' Desdemona in a Trevor
Nunn TV production.  There is no salaciousness or pandering, but rather a hard
sad look at the plight of the female of the species. The parameters that for
her justified infidelity were quite clear. She may have been thinking of the
Biblical Esther who allowed herself to become the concubine of the king, even
though, as tradition has it, she was married to Mordechai.  (From this vantage
point Esther was eventually able to plead to the king against the destruction
of her people (Cassio), and frustrate the plan of the evil Haman (the king's
"ancient" wharever that means?) In the final event Mordechai was elevated to a
position of power in the empire.)

The TV camera in Trevor Nunn's production was on Emilia's face when Othello
mentioned the handkerchief.  We saw her undergo a fleeting shock and then stare
stolidly forward.  When husband and wife continued their discussion she made a
tactful (and perhaps tactical) retreat to the other side of the set where she
would not have to be an eavesdropper.

As for how she understood her husband's desire for the trifle: It was a
fascinating artifact in its own right.  When Cassio found it he was so
enthralled he asked Bianca to "take me this work out" before the rightful owner
claimed it. (There you are Dan! All the director has to do to elucidate the
meaning of the term is to maintain the audience"s attention for the length of
the next scene.)

I continue to be amazed at Shakespeare.  If he reworked themes and plots he did
so like a Japanese sword maker who beats  the white hot iron flat, folds it
lengthwise, bathes it once more in the hot charcoal and repeats the procedure
time and time again, ending up with and instrument of extreme strength and
flexibilty and with an edge that will last for centuries.

Syd Kasten
 

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