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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: October ::
Re: Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2172  Thursday, 31 October 2002

[1]     From:   Tom Marshall <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:20:34 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

[2]     From:   Gareth M. Euridge <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:21:10 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

[3]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 15:22:41 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

[4]     From:   Michael Shurgot <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:21:19 -0800
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

[5]     From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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        Date:   Thursday, October 31, 2002
        Subj:   Re: Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tom Marshall <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:20:34 -0500
Subject: 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

Alice Symons asks: "But why is she obedient to someone whose treachery
she knows about?"

Is there any evidence in the text that Emilia knows about Iago's
treachery before Act V. Iago trades on his "good reputation." Even
though he's known as a cynic, he's well thought of. Emilia does not
imagine him capable of such treachery until she puts the pieces together
in Act V.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gareth M. Euridge <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:21:10 -0500
Subject: 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona
Comment:        RE: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

Friends:

I always find it strange that people assume that Emilia loves her
mistress.  Why would this be the case, any more than the assumption that
Iago loves Othello?  Is this not simply a comforting strategy deployed
by the rich by which they can "personalize" a relationship with the
"help," a way in which economic exploitation is smoothed into an ersatz
sense of familial belonging? . . . "Consuela is so good, and she just
loves little Christopher . . . ; we're taking her to Paris with us, you
know . . . ."  And, of course, how shocked the families when, with the
relative inexpensiveness of modern surveillance techniques, they
discover darling Consuela trying on their clothes, helping herself to
the shrimp ring, and cuffing the snot-nosed brat around the head.

Why not, then, start from the realistic assumption that Emilia hates
Desdemona, though perhaps in an abstract rather than particular way, as
representative of a ruling class which assumes her function in life is
to serve.  Did anyone ask Emilia if she wanted to go to Cyprus?  Did
anyone ask her if she wanted to be a servant to Desdemona simply because
Iago is a servant to Othello? "Unpin this!" she thinks.  And, hence, her
due is petty pilfering from the linen closet, partly, perhaps, to please
her husband, but partly out of a sense of unfocused malice (the same
unfocused malice, in fact, which motivates Iago throughout, a domestic
vandalism):  "Consuela, I can't seem to find my sorority ring . . . ".
And although most servants may/should resent their masters, may steal
from them, may urinate in the soup, unlike Iago they may draw the line
at murder . . . ; her actions at the end of the play.

Isn't Emilia, then, really a key to the whole play, writ small?  The
elite need to believe that they are beloved by their servants (ever
noticed the way in which our students all believe that they are loved by
the kitchen staff?) because, otherwise, they might have to consider them
as real human beings, might have to consider that there is a fundamental
inequity in the social order.  Iago, in this elite mindset, is an
"ancient" because, at heart, he loves being an ancient, loves taking the
cases to Othello's room, loves doffing his cap to the dandy Cassio,
loves emptying the jordan . . . .  They are all unable to acknowledge
that honest Iago might habour malicious thoughts because, if they
recognized he did, they would have to consider upon what grounds, and,
then, they might have to consider that the grounds for his animosity are
not without merit, and then, in good faith, they might have to consider
changing the system . . . .

Perhaps it's better simply not to install the webcam.

Best, gareth

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 15:22:41 -0800
Subject: 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

This question is a little sticky, but there are some possible ways
through.  I think the first thing to see is that Emilia is not trying to
destroy Othello's and Desdemona's marriage. If you think that, you've
departed so far from the play you have probably holed up in a place
criticism can't reach. Being unhappy, or uneasy, about the marriage is
not the same as trying to destroy it.

Then look at the passage where Emilia finds the handkerchief. First she
plans to take the work out--to make a copy--and then give either the
copy or the original to Iago. But Iago suddenly appears, and Emilia,
apparently eager to please him, lets her secret drop. She tells Iago to
give the handkerchief back because it means so much to Desdemona, but he
grabs it and orders her away. Apart from the usual subordination of wife
to husband, Iago seems to have a greater than usual hold over his wife.
Maybe a sense of sexual domination, or just her love for him, could be
established to suggest a source of her desire to please. She feels
misused, as women are misused by men, but still sees serving her husband
as her highest wifely purpose--see the willow scene. She also has no
idea what Iago is capable of. He has fooled her too. When the truth
finally dawns on her she revolts.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Shurgot
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Oct 2002 11:21:19 -0800
Subject: 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona
Comment:        RE: SHK 13.2164 Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

Dear Colleagues:

When I teach Othello, I tell my students that the play could be seen as
"The Tragedy of Emilia." As Prof. Symons notes, Emilia's loyalties are
divided. In act 5 she rages at her ignorance of what she believes she
should have known earlier: ("I thought so then, I'll kill myself for
grief" [5.2.189-Signet]), but these words do not necessarily mean that
throughout the play she has been "loyal" to Desdemona. I believe that
point is crucial, and I suspect that several colleagues will vehemently
disagree with me on that. She is TOLD to attend to Desdemona, and I have
seen productions in which Emilia resents Desdemona's outwardly joyous
marriage to Othello, esp.  when Othello arrives on shore in 2.1. 180ff
("It gives me wonder great as my content . . ." [Think about that
deceptively simple line: WONDER as GREAT as his CONTENT, his having
survived the hideous storm that wrecks the enemy ships yet spares his
and Desdemona's barks!]), and he and Desdemona embrace and (according to
an interpolated s.d.), kiss. Emilia sees/hears this little love scene,
and she may keep the hanky because she believes that this lucky find
will bring her similar attention from Iago. In this (terrifying, given
what we know of Iago already in the play?) assumption may rest her
biggest error; thus her tragedy, as she could have prevented O's and D's
tragedy by mentioning the hanky, esp. in the willow scene, the only
substantial scene in the play entirely between two women. However, I
would argue that none of the above guarantees that earlier in the play
Emilia is loyal to D. or that she unequivocally loves her.

Emilia is a character in a play, a fiction within a fiction; but in her
complexity of motives and inner life (H. Bloom not withstanding), she is
marvelously "life-like," is she not? Bill was really on when he wrote
this one, yes?

Regards,
Michael Shurgot

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:           Thursday, October 31, 2002
Subject:        Re: Emilia's Allegiance to Desdemona

I have had the good fortune, or might I say privilege, to see a
marvelous actress, the formerly Washington, D.C. based Fran Doren, play
two very different Emilias. In the Othello staring Avery Brookes, her
Emilia was a brash, free-spirited woman of the world. In the Othello
with Patrick Stewart, her Emilia was an abused wife -- two very credible
readings performed by the same actress, in two very different
interpretations of the play.

Hardy

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