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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: November ::
Re: Desdemona and Emilia
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2198  Tuesday, 5 November 2002

[1]     From:   Gareth M. Euridge <
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        Date:   Sunday, 3 Nov 2002 13:55:51 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.2183 Re: Desdemona and Emilia

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Monday, 04 Nov 2002 00:20:14 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2183 Re: Desdemona and Emilia


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gareth M. Euridge <
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Date:           Sunday, 3 Nov 2002 13:55:51 -0500
Subject: 13.2183 Re: Desdemona and Emilia
Comment:        RE: SHK 13.2183 Re: Desdemona and Emilia

Friends:

Thank you all for your various responses, and, to be honest, I am a
little uncomfortable with the seeming reductiveness of my argument too.
But I would ask you all to remember that I was responding to an original
posting that claimed (my apologies to the original sender; I forget the
exact wording) that Emilia clearly loves Desdemona.  And I was observing
that, in my opinion, this seems to be an assumption too readily accepted
by contemporary readers.

The problem is that this assumption leads us into interpretational
difficulties because, well, how do we then explain Emilia's later
[in]actions-in particular, her "I know not, madam" when asked if she
knows where the hanky is, her subsequent silence when the situation
seems to be spinning dangerously out of control [my mind also turns to
Margaret in Much Ado who dresses up in Hero's clothes, smooches in the
window, and who is later silent about the charges against Hero;
Leonato's intention to "talk with Margaret" also fades from the text].

Certainly, I would acknowledge the merits of the wifely-obedience
argument (Iago has asked Emilia to steal if before and, perhaps, not
knowing the malicious extent to which Iago will use it, the theft is an
attempt to get into his good books, and perhaps, that night, his bed).
But I also contend that there is a strong element of class antagonism
here that, for very ideologically motivated reasons, we, and many before
us, have tended to marginalize.  Again, why should Emilia like Desdemona
any more than Iago should like Othello or Cassio?  [I always suspect
that there's a gender stereotype also involved in this:  women are nice
and lovely whereas, culturally, men are allowed to be mean].   Why
shouldn't Iago's malignity be echoed, albeit it more mutedly, in his
wife?  Why shouldn't Emilia also resent her husband's lack of promotion
(though, yes, I know-he was probably never eligible for the job, anyway,
and is lying to Roderigo).  Why should not the "cogging, cozening" slave
speech be delivered not with a suspicious glance at her husband but with
a sense of malicious complicity in the ongoing domestic vandalism-if she
is so fearfully obedient, this speech strikes me as dangerously lippy
indeed?  How concerned should Emilia feel for her "friend" Desdemona who
has ordered her to make the bed then la-di-das he way through the willow
song, which, as Desdemona punctiliously and rank-consciously informs
Emilia, was taught to her by her mother's maid?  Has a fraught Desdemona
simply forgotten her "please, sweetie-muffins" when telling Emilia to
"unpin me here" or "lay by these."  Perhaps, as Emilia admits, there are
indeed many things that she would do "i'th'dark."  What about the deep
class resentment underlying the following sentiment:  "Why, the wrong is
but a wrong i'th'world, and having the world for your labour, 'tis a
wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right"?  Isn't
"labour" here a strange choice of word . . . ?  And so, yes, I do feel
that resentment in these circumstances is "natural"-and any other
response does indeed strike me as the fruit of  a false consciousness .
. . .

My argument then is that the "problem" of Emilia is, really, one of our
own creation insofar as "elite" contemporary consumers of Shakespeare
have a vested interest in not acknowledging class-antagonism as a major
factor in the play; if we acknowledge that Emilia might resent
Desdemona, we also have to acknowledge that our building's custodians
might also not share fully or joyfully in our institutions' sense of
"community mission."  And such realizations are uncomfortable, are best
assuaged by a noblesse-obligic departmental whip-round at Xmas.  I also
suspect that a contemporaneous audience, at a time in which masters and
servants lived much more closely together and were not always separated
by stadium seating-plans and curtains across first class, would have
been much more receptive to this understanding of the play, would have
absolutely understood the economic and exploitative nature of the
relationship between Desdemona and Emilia-and would not have been fooled
by the "we're such friends" subterfuge, any more than a contemporary
reader is necessarily fooled by a "title" promotion rather than a salary
increase.

My best wishes,
gareth

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Monday, 04 Nov 2002 00:20:14 -0500
Subject: 13.2183 Re: Desdemona and Emilia
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2183 Re: Desdemona and Emilia

>If you review historical documents
>that are still is use today we find differences in meaning(s).  One
>example is the use of freedom and democracy in the U.S. Constitution,
>Bill Of Rights, as regarding slavery.

I do not follow this point.

Slavery is not mentioned in the Bill of Rights.  In fact, it is not
mentioned as such at all until the Thirteenth Amendment, adopted in
1865, which abolished slavery.  There are, however, provisions in
Article I regarding the calculation of taxes and the allocation of
Congressional seats which refer obliquely to slaves (the "Three Fifths
Compromise") as well as a prohibition against Congress legislating
against the "Importation of ... Persons" until at least 1808.  There is
also a provision is Article IV requiring each state to return any
fugitive "held to Service or  Labour" in another state.

The word "democracy" appears no where in the U.S. Constitution.

The word "freedom" appears only once:  in the First Amendment's
provision that Congress may not make a law "abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press."

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