Friday, January 28, 2011

Othello and Emilia, Sitting In A Tree

One of the reasons Iago gives for his hatred of Othello is the rumor that "'twixt my sheets he has done my office," I surprisingly polite way for Iago to say that Othello slept with his (Iago's) wife, Emilia. (This from a man who told Desdemona's father that he'd better hurry up and locate his daughter because she was busy having sex with an animal ("you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse...your nephews will neigh at you".)

So my question is this -- I believe, though I can't quite find exact proof right at the moment, that Othello and Emilia must share the stage at some point. Does Othello ever directly address Emilia? Whether he does or not, has anybody ever seen a production, or considered one, where evidence is given that Iago's suspicions are correct?

What would such an interpretation do to Iago's character? Say, hypothetically, that we staged an Othello were it was perfectly obvious that Othello had indeed slept with Iago's wife. Would that make us sympathize with what Iago is about to do? We already know that Othello is a flawed man, so I'm not sure how much he'd change if we added "lust" to "jealousy" in the list of primal urges he has trouble controlling. It would almost certainly make the whole jealousy thing far more obvious, since he's got a reason to watch out for men sleeping with his wife.

I hadn't actually made that connection when I first started this post. *Did* Othello sleep around? Is that why he's so crazy jealous?


David Blixt said...

They're on together for certain in 3.3, and actually speak to each other in 4.2. And, of course, in the final scene.

I'm not sure that the "fact" that Othello slept with Emilia means he slept around. I think, based on her fourth-act conversation with Desdemona, that she seduced Othello in order to gain promotion for her husband. In which case, her scheme didn't work. Maybe Othello didn't like being manipulated that way...

Alexi said...

Err, I'm thinking no. I don't buy it.

Emilia's discussion of adultery is pointedly hypothetical. I have a hard time believing she's actually betrayed Iago, even given his suspicions to the contrary.

The only scenes we actually get between Emilia and Othello are a) after Othello's jealousy has gotten the better of him and b) clearly antagonistic. There's no way to believably convey a prior relationship in their two brief conversations, especially given Emilia's middling racism ("..,and you the blacker devil").

If there's anything people agree with about Iago, is that he is an unreliable narrator. I don't hold with twisting the facts of the play to help justify his jealousy, because that's exactly what he tricks Othello into doing.

Andrew Huntley said...

Iago also gives a myriad of reasons why he hates Othello, and a lot of them are contradictory. It seems it's more of a primal urge Iago has to hate, and he's searching for justification.

David Blixt said...

I'm not sure if I believe Iago either (hence the quotes around "fact" in the earlier post). But Alexi, I find your out-of-hand rejection of the idea puzzling. Every objection you make can be read the opposite way, supporting the idea.

Of course Emilia's presenting it as a hypothetical - she's talking to Othello's wife! And, buying this, she has reason to be antagonistic towards Othello, who didn't promote her husband. Even better if she felt racial distaste and slept with him anyway.

I'm not saying that this has to be the case - certainly not. But I dislike ruling out choices for actors to make. Emilia is a rather thankless role, and the more life and color an actress can give it, the better the show is. When I directed the show, this is what the Emilia and I came up with. It fits not only the text, but the nature of the story - sex, betrayal, lies.

Now, I agree that in the space provided, the audience might not pick this up. But Iago says it, and it has to be dealt with one way or another. If this is the life that the performer comes up with to explain her scenes, I think it works. The text may not explicitly support the idea, but doesn't rule it out. Not at all.

Alexi said...

David- You're right, I was overhasty in dismissing this interpretation. It doesn't fit my personal interpretations of either character, but that's not to say it could never be a valid choice. I can't really judge it until I have seen a performance that used that imagined backstory.

I guess one thing that is certain is that this would be an artistic choice divergent from Shakespeare's intention. Given that his actors received their scripts in parts, there would be no way they would base their performance around a line spoken in soliloquy by another character. (Also, would Othello make Emilia his wife's attendant if he had that kind of backstory with her?)

It's seems more likely, to me, that Shakespeare included Iago's worry that "the lusty Moor hath leapt into my seat," to show his obsession with reputation ("I know not if it be true, but I for mere suspicion of the kind will do as if for surety") and his personal awareness of the toxicity of jealousy ("The thought whereof doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards"). The line is about Iago's paranoia, and doesn't actually correspond to an external reality.

catkins said...

But Emilia makes it clear that she has never slept with Othello. She offhandedly mentions at one point to Iago that she wouldn't be surprised if it were not the same sort of person who insinuated falsely that she had fooled around with Othello as was spreading rumors about Desdemona and Cassio. She would certainly have no cause to say that in this scene in an attempt to fool Iago--as far as she knew, he no longer had any suspicions about that. This is clearly a plant on the author's part to make clear that Iago is a fool as far as his suspicions go.

David Blixt said...

AN excellent point, Catkins. But I can raise the same objection as I did earlier. If, for the sake of argument, we say my scenario is true, OF COURSE she'll lie to Iago. "Hey, baby, this is a lie, just like all the people who said I cheated on you. You know I love you."

I'm not sure we can write it off as a "plant" by the author (playwright) to show us anything. That's the joy of dialogue - it's open to interpretation.

Wayne Myers said...

I agree with you, David. Emilia just may have slept with Othello, but Shakespeare at his best will never give you more than that possibility. This is how he handled the Mowbray-Bullingbrook conflict in "Richard II." You just don't know if Mowbray is telling the truth or not. For me, the key moment on the issue of Emilia comes in act 5, scene 4. Desdemona is talking to Emilia about women who sleep with other men in order to advance their husbands' careers. Desdemona asks Emilia, "Woulds't thou do such a deed for all the world?"

Now you would expect a "no" from Emilia, right, but she says instead, "Why, would not you?"

And there, I think, it is.

Desdemona replies, "No, by this heavenly light!"

And then Emilia says, "Nor I neither by this heavenly light; I might do't as well i' th' dark."

Desdemona presses on, and Emilia maintains her evasiveness.

It is not hard proof, but Shakespeare is canny, really asking you to look at the sort of person Emilia is. Could she do such a thing? Yes, she could. Is she so inclined? Probably.

"Othello" is not only about jealousy destroying Othello. It consumes Iago as well. He says in a soliloquy that the thought of Othello sleeping with Emilia is eating him alive. And it is. He even hates Cassio because he's a man who gets everything he wants in life--the promotions, the prettiest women, etc.

Wayne Myers said...

Correction: Act 4, scene 3. Too early in the morning...

Wayne Myers said...

One more comment on this thread: I think directors too often attempt to make clear what I believe Shakespeare sometimes intended to be ambiguous. The Othello-Emilia relationship is a good example of this. Some directors may feel an urge to clarify for an audience that Othello and Emilia did sleep together (or did not) but I think the more tantalizing approach is to suggest it to the audience, but leave the issue unanswered. The former choice actually weakens productions, in my opinion. Shakespeare, on the whole, never did like neat endings, did he? Did the "Love's Labour's Lost" couples ever reunite? Regarding "The Merchant of Venice," how much of Portia's fortune is left after a year married to Bassanio? I wonder...

catkins said...

Sorry David and Wayne, I don't think your arguments hold water. You say that Emilia would lie to Iago, but my point is that Iago is not confronting Emilia. He is proclaiming Desdemona's inconstancy (and we are talking about Act IV, scene 2). Emilia is denouncing Iago in front of Desdemona and making a scene. He is trying to quiet her down:

IAGO: Speak within door.
EMILIA: O fie upon them! Some such squire he was
That turn'd your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.
IAGO: You are a fool; go to.

This is explosive! Emilia would NEVER say such a thing if she were guilty or if she had ANY thought that Iago could possibly believe it to be true. This would not be the time or place to bring it up! OK, if Iago accused her and she were guilty, she would certainly deny it. And perhaps, as some sort of ploy, she might bring the incident up to divert suspicion. But NOT here, NOT now! NO WAY!

The prior scene with Desdemona is different and is just meant to show Desdemona's purity, in contrast to Emilia's earthliness. That Emilia wouldn't hesitate under some circumstances to wander is just her nature--it does not mean she did it, and certainly NOT with Othello. The point of that scene was to contrast Desdemona's nature. The point of this scene is to point out the crookedness of Iago's nature. He cannot tell his suspicions from reality, and does not care to. Suspected insults are as good as insults to him. No, I think it is just as important that Emilia is innocent as it is that Desdemona is. "Othello" is about jealousy and what it does to judgment. Let us not get our villains confused, nor give the most villainous villain in history any more leeway than he deserves.

David Blixt said...

I don't know, Carl. Whenever I hear someone telling me what a scene or a play is about, my back gets up. For me the joy of Shakespeare is that he created such wonderful characters, with such depth and life, that their motives and actions are open to interpretation. Saying for certain this way or that takes choices away from an actor and director. As I'm sure you know, certainty is death in theatre.

You disagree, and I can see you point. But I can also see - and have seen - actors on stage inhabiting the roles, refuting your statement. On an academic level, I could just as easily argue that Emilia being virtuous actually diminishes Desdemona's purity. We have three women in the show - one a paragon of virtue, one a whore, and -- Emilia. What if she's the practical woman in between? You say in the same breath that she wouldn't hesitate to wander in the right circumstance, and that she definitively hasn't, and absolutely not with Othello. I see such certainty about a character's motives as limiting. I'm not saying I'm right, but I dislike being boxed in by people's preconceptions about characters.

As to the dialogue you cite, I can easily see a woman who wronged her husband being overly defensive, to the point of bringing it up. What, you were never in a bad relationship where someone cheated on you? I had a couple of those in my 20s, and I can tell you, guilt could provoke Emilia to such a statement as easily as innocence.

Finally, you clearly like your evil EVIL. Me, I find evil much more frightening when it comes from a genuine place. You're right, it absolutely works if there's no breath of truth to it. But what if there's a hint of truth... Besides, you talk like there are white hats and black hats. Othello kills his wife! Doesn't that make him a villain, too? This play is far too complex for one villain, and everybody else paragons of morality. Cassio is a violent drunk, Othello a jealous, insecure hot-head.

And is Iago really "the most villainous villain in history?" More than Richard III? More than Macbeth? Both of them caused the death of children, not to mention their closest friends - and, in Richard's case, his own brother. While he's manipulative, Iago causes the death of four people in all, possibly adding himself. There's a bigger death-toll in R&J!

I'm not saying he isn't a villain - he absolutely is. I'm only saying that its those kind of preconceptions about characters that strangle the life out of the stage. You have no idea how often I hear people say, "He wasn't evil enough" or "She wasn't beautiful enough." Hell, people complain if Juliet isn't a blonde!

Sorry for the ramble. Home with a sick kid, after a sleepless night. But I guess I'm of the Chuck Jones school of creativity. Nothing kills an idea faster and deader than the word, "No."

catkins said...

David, I forgive you your ramble because you are absolutely right.
On re-reading my post it does sound like I am allowing only one interpretation for the scene, and that is certainly not right.
I only really meant to say I disagree.
And I am sure we can agree to disagree.
I cannot agree with you more when you say that Shakespeare's characters should be open to interpretation--yours just as well as mine, of course.
And everything you say about Shakespeare's villains rings true as well. Yes, I find Iago the most villainous, but that doesn't prevent you from having your own most villainous villain (or equally villainous villains, if it comes to that).
So much in Shakespeare!

Wayne Myers said...

Still with you on this one, David! Iago has many reasons for despising Othello, and they're all pretty good ones, too, but note that it is the promotion issue that comes up immediately in the play. It is not insignificant, then, that it comes up again between Desdemona and Emilia just before Desdemona's murder. Consider the chain: A key promotion is to be made. Knowing how important the promotion is to her husband, Emilia may have slept with Othello to ensure her husband's advancement. Othello has sex with Emilia and then gives Cassio, Iago's hated rival, the promotion. Now Iago not only doesn't get the promotion, but he's also tormented by the thought that his wife may have slept with Othello, and vows to be even with him "wife for wife." Yes, there are different interpretations, and I find it fascinating to see character angles I never before considered! I happen to like this promotion track, though, but would consider other alternate ways of playing it if they were indeed intriguing. "Othello" is a deeply sexual (in this case, how sex, real or imagined, can destroy us) and psychological play.

Wayne Myers said...

Hi, Catkins!

Desdemona and Emilia devote about 50 lines or so to the issue of female infidelity, with Emilia very sympathetic when the act is done to make one's husband a "monarch." Doesn't Emilia want what Iago wants--the prestige of the promotion?

But I think you were partially right when you said in your post, "That Emilia wouldn't hesitate under some circumstances to wander is just her nature--it does not mean she did it, and certainly NOT with Othello."

Shakespeare doesn't answer the question of whether or not she slept with Othello, but a lot is packed in those 50 lines to fuel that possibility. As you say, it doesn't mean that she did. It also cannot be ruled out, however, and that is just how it should be.

The scene does raise another interesting possibility. Why does Desdemona keep pressing Emilia on the issue? Does she suspect Emilia may have slept with Othello? Does Emilia's infidelity, then, precipitate the tragedy?

Charlene said...

I'm surprised no one's brought this up yet, but isn't this exactly what they did at the last Public Theatre production? Emilia was shown in bed with Othello, I heard. I didn't see it, so I can't comment on how it played, but I have to say I find no textual evidence for it.

Wayne Myers said...

Charlene, I would come out against such an explicit treatmwnt as in the case of the Public Theater production you cite.

Shakespeare takes us down the alleged infidelity road, but gives us no answer at the end of it. Maintaining the doubt is the superior way.

Even Iago denies us answers at the conclusion, taunting us with, "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know; from this time forth I never will speak word."