I came to Othello late in my Shakespearean education, meaning after I’d graduated with an English degree and moved to New York and started work and sank into a pit of intellectual ferment and general post-collegiate malaise. Othello had somehow eluded me; in eight years of high school and undergraduate English classes, I’d read Lear twice and Macbeth twice and Hamlet more times than I cared to remember and all the other tragedies at least once, but never Othello.
I downloaded an ebook version of the play, riddled with typos and strange formatting errors that made certain scenes read like an e.e. cummings poem, so I could it read on my commute to and from work. I read Act 5, Scene II—The One With All the Deaths—on my phone while riding the F train, and when I finished, I looked around at my fellow subway riders in astonishment. How had no one ever told me about Emilia, who, in only a couple of lines, brings down one of the most conniving, merciless villains in all of Western literature? How had no one told me about this fantastic female character who defies not one but two sword-wielding men in order to make sure Desdemona, her mistress and friend, receives justice? I wanted to rip up my diploma. I wanted to start over as a freshman and devote my entire undergraduate career to the Gospel of Emilia.
Later, I discovered that A. C. Bradley felt much the same in 1904 when he was lecturing on Shakespeare at Oxford. “Till close to the end [of the play] she frequently sets ones teeth on edge,” he writes of Emilia, “and at the end, one is ready to worship her.”
Part of Emilia’s appeal is her sheer familiarity. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s characters, she needs little translation to come alive to the 21st-century reader. In a modern rom-com, Emilia would be The Best Friend: salty, of good heart but questionable advice, chatty, kind of a mess — but an endearing mess. When Desdemona asks heaven to pardon the hypothetical man who is turning her husband against her, Emilia wastes no time shutting that down: “A halter pardon him! and hell gnaw his bones!” In our modern rom-com, she would be standing on a chair in a bar, egging on the heroine while smashing beer bottles on the floor.
But it’s not just Emilia’s guff that makes her a fascinating character. What allows her to transcend what Thomas Rymer sarcastically calls “The Tragedy of the Handkerchief” is her confrontation and dismissal of the malice of male violence, even if she can’t escape from it. Emilia is threatened not once but twice in her final scene — once with Othello’s sword, and once with her husband’s. But even in the face of this brutality, she is a rebuke to the idea of female silence. Iago, sensing that she’s about to expose him, tells her to shut up and go home. She responds with a speech that puts the rest of the characters of the play to shame:
No, I will speak as liberal as the north:
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.
Emilia demonstrates the potency of female rage in the face of violence. The injustice of Desdemona’s death almost chokes her, yet she still manages to speak. Once she realizes what he’s done, she exposes Iago’s plot to turn Othello against Desdemona, separating herself from her husband and aligning herself with her female friend—a rare move in classic literature. At the same time, she pays the price for this realignment: Before Iago is apprehended (alive, which is in and of itself a rarity in Shakespeare), he stabs and kills Emilia, silencing her by force when he couldn’t do so by threats.
Coleridge may have argued, in praising the docility of Desdemona’s death, that Shakespeare knew it was the perfection of a woman to be characterless, but Shakespeare himself contradicts this assertion in his depiction of Emilia. In fact, the strength of Emilia’s rage loomed so large in the Victorian imagination that her part was severely cut in most productions, for fear she would overshadow the title character in the last act of the play.
I was considering Emilia when my mother called me a couple of weeks ago. The campus of SUNY Geneseo, forty-five minutes from where I grew up, had been shell-shocked by a double murder-suicide; this was my mother’s alma mater, and the alma mater of several of my closest friends from high school. I’d slept on the floor of the dorms in a sleeping bag more than once, on visits as a teenager; I had sunny, happy memories there. Details had begun to emerge about the murder-suicide when my mother called: A former student had apparently killed his ex-girlfriend, as well as another classmate, in her bed while they slept. The details were gruesome, and yet somehow not surprising. Almost every woman I know has at least one story about being threatened with or experiencing violence at the hands of men.
“It’s all so awful,” my mother said, and then added, as if she couldn’t think of any other advice: “Just stay away from men.” I assured her that, due to a variety of factors, I was already doing a stellar job on that front, but it made me think: Emilia and Desdemona weren’t killed for being unfaithful or foolish or too trusting or too weak—they were killed because they hung around too many damn men.
Hamlet is supposed to be the post-modern play, the play of our historical moment (the Romantics had Lear; Shakespeare’s own generation, uneasy about the inevitable death of heirless Elizabeth, enjoyed tormenting themselves with Henry IV, Part I and Richard III), but the situation Desdemona and Emilia face—damned if you do, damned if you don’t, damned if someone says you did, damned if you misplace your handkerchief—resonates with me far more than Hamlet’s more generalized angst. At its heart Othello is not a play about sexual jealousy; Othello is a play about control, and what happens to women who resist or subvert that control. Othello is the play of UC Santa Barbara and George Sodini’s LA Fitness and the Milford, Connecticut high school where Maren Sanchez was stabbed before her prom. In that sense, Othello is also a play for every woman who has ever been told to “just stay away from men.”
Bradley gives Emilia credit for speaking “for us the violent common emotions which we feel, together with those more tragic emotions which she does not comprehend” following Desdemona’s death. “From the moment of her appearance after the murder to the moment of her death she is transfigured,” he writes, “and yet she remains perfectly true to herself, and we would not have her one atom less herself.” But Emilia isn’t only a mouthpiece for the despair of the viewer; she is a witness to the violence committed against her friend, and an active agent in her own fate. “I care not for thy sword,” Emilia says to Othello, when she discovers what he’s done. “I’ll make thee known, though I lost twenty lives.”
In the end, though, she only had the one life. She gave it. She spoke.
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy; Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan, 1905.
Grennan, Eamon. “The Women’s Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence,” Shakespeare Quarterly 38.3 (1987): 27-92.
Petcher, Edward. “Too Much Violence: Murdering Wives in Othello.” Othello. New York: Morton, 2004. 366-87.