Emelia Under A Fragmented Gaze
Some historians attuned to gender conflict have theorized that matriarchal societies passed into patriarchal societies when men realized that sex produced children. At that point, it became valuable to control sex through marriage and incredibly restrictive laws and practices that kept women essentially in solitary confinement. In this sense, relationship and kinship dynamics form the bedrock upon which more complex forms of oppression are built. Othello is a complex entity in this regard. While it was written by a man certainly trapped in his zeitgeist, it is a good enough story that it has a life of its own, and only peripheral looks at Shakespeare will be necessary. The problem is that all of the main women characters (Desdemona, Bianca and Emelia), while being empowered and talented women, tolerate abusive relationships. It is my contention that feminist scholarship has in general looked at characters in plays holistically, averaging the sum of their complex parts and determining if they are gender heroes, cowards or villains. I find this practice arbitrary, and I will instead analyze Emelia's character and actions in terms of possibly competing aspects of her personality, dictated by her emotional state and position vis-a-vis a broader social context.
Emelia is conscious of the power of social influence and of common gender dynamics. When Desdemona asks, “Wouldst thou do such a deed [abuse one's husband] for all the world?”, Emelia responds, “In troth, I think I should... not for any petty exhibition; but, for all the whole world – 'Ud's pity! who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” (Act IV, Scene III, lines 66-73). This response is complex. It indicates that she values power over dignity, a deep character flaw. But it also indicates that she associates her success with that of her husband's; that is, that she would be willing to abuse her husband to give him power. A question immediately arises: Is she censoring herself to avoid shocking Desdemona, or does she truly want power only for her husband?
The matter is complicated by the lines coming immediately after these. Emelia blames husbands for the pathologies of their wives; “But I think it is their husbands' faults/If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties/And pour our treasures into foreign laps” (same act and scene as above, lines 82-84). She blames husbands for infidelity; after all, if men did their jobs in satisfying women, would women seek out other men? She then goes on to issue a familiar-sounding proclamation (same act and scene as above, lines 89-99):
Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have.
What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is't frailty that thus errs?
It is too. And have we not affections,
Desires for sports, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well, else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instrust us so.
This paragraph is the gender parallel to Shylock's speech on race and religion in The Merchant of Venice. In both cases, a character considered within the context of the play to be a villain is momentarily raised in status and given a brief humanity. In both cases, while courageously speaking out against the stereotypes and the norms and societal roles that hold them down, they immediately return to proactively filling those roles to the tee: Shylock by being a greedy Jew, Emelia by being a passive wife always seeking to satisfy her husband. Emelia, however, gives up the game in her speech: She points out that, while both men and women commit depravities, women are placed onto a pedestal by society. It is key to note that, like the “model minority” myth for Asians, that the “holy mother” image of women, while appearing to be reverent, is in fact a fairly crass carrot-and-stick manuever. It constructs a behavior model that, however admirable the model may be, implies a group behavior. When members of that group do not fulfill the expectations, they can be branded as aberrants and be severed off from their fellow group members; in this case, if a woman cheats on a man, she is being sincerely devilish since no good woman does that. (The model in question, of course, also assumes docility and puppy-dog-like loyalty to be virtues and independence to be something to be sharply curtailed, but that is of secondary importance; any model will do fine). Emelia points out that women have to stick to this model or else risk showing men something men don't want to see: That the majority of immoral actions committed by women are caused by the system being rigged in favor of men in the first place.
In this sense, Emelia and Desdemona are mirror images. Both have powerful husbands in important positions in the military. Both of their husbands are aware of, at some level, an injustice against them and a precariousness to their position (Iago is snickered at because his wife supposedly slept with Othello; Othello is a foreigner who must walk a very narrow line, and still faces racial slurs from the likes of Brabantio and Iago when he does walk the line). Both are talented, privileged women with obvious intelligence and wit. And both kowtow to their husbands' demands, retreating into a state of passivity precisely as their husbands become more abusive. The flaw in the mirror image is exactly the same as the flaw in the reflection between Iago and Othello. Desdemona comes from a position of innocence; she is not used to abusive relationships. Othello has a similar naivete; he blindly trusts Iago just as Desdemona blindly trusts Emelia and Othello. She seems unaware of the reality of the racial and gender dynamics in the society. Iago, being a manipulator, is inherently aware of the tools he works with, and Emelia is similarly conscious. She knows that the game is rigged against her gender; she is aware of Othello's status as an alien; and, most importantly, she knows that she is in an abusive relationship with a man who cares very little about her. Ironically, this conscious acquiesence to her society keeps Emelia alive longer than Desdemona, but both attitudes are unsustainable. What would be needed would be Desdemona's bright-eyed view combined with the information and pragmatism Emelia possesses.
It is key to note that Shakespeare had to appeal to a very heavily gender-biased audience. For evidence, look no further than The Taming of the Shrew, a comedy about wife-beating. Elizabethan England was severely polarized in almost every sphere of life: the state was a totalitarian monarchy, the economic system was feudal, a man could drink away his wife's life savings, and ethnic Others were horrendously mistreated, not to mention the corrosive effect of the Church on the body politic. Given this context, it is amazing that Shakespeare's work has the implications it does. Whether or not Shakespeare himself was liberal or conservative by the standard of his times is a chimerical question: his work takes on a life of its own, one with progressive implications, I believe. Nonetheless, asking the question would have one implication: If there is not a simultaneously self-empowered and conscious woman in the play (Desdemona being self-empowered, Emelia being conscious), is this because Shakespeare chose not to write such a character for whatever literary or social reason, or simply because he could not imagine such a woman, so antithetical to his social order?
The contrast between Emelia and Desdemona becomes clear in Act II, Scene I. Iago accuses Emelia of idiocy, back-talking and infidelity (Act II, Scene I, lines 100-102, 104-107, and 109-112). He then goes on to joke about every possible combination of women. He finally describes his ideal wife, a woman indistinguishable from the worst kind of slave. During this time, Emelia only says “You have little cause to say so” and similar weak retorts (same act and scene, lines 109 and 116). Desdemona, on the other hand, rebuts Iago's chauvinist diatribe at every turn. Desdemona even comments that Emelia “has no speech” and tells Emelia to ignore her worse halfs' ramblings (lines 103 and 159-161). Desdemona seems unaware that such behavior is a faux pas in her society; Emelia keeps her mouth shut. Only when she is away from Iago does she confide about her understanding of the world that she lives in.
In the end, Emelia is complicit in the chain of events that lead to the death of Desdemona, Othello, herself and Iago. Her desperate desire to please the man who, despite his wanton abuse, she still loves, does her in. But her pragmatic acquiescence to her gender position does keep her very briefly alive; only at the end of the play does she slip, and she is immediately snuffed. It is ironically often the strongest women who let themselves be abused by their lovers, and I view Emelia as a paragon of strength, if not a blazing courage. It is far too easy for radicals to attack the individuals who make less than admirable decisions in the context of oppressive social structures. The relevant question is not, “Why did Emelia not behave in a revolutionary manner, despite her obvious consciousness of her condition?”, but rather, “Why is society designed in such a way that such a woman is kept relatively powerless?” Institutions do not just assign roles: they alter perceptions and make rebellion difficult. It carries deep personal costs to resist the status quo. Within the context of the status quo, people will make all sorts of decisions. Radicals should focus on attacking the context that propels repugnant decisions rather than the individuals who made them. To do otherwise is to unconsciously reify the structure that views such behavior as pathology. To find a revolutionary, one must seek out both Desdemona's intolerance of injustice and Emelia's consciousness of the same injustice. This search will not be done in dusty archives, but in the consciousness of humankind.