It is time for a shift in perception about Shakespeare’s Othello. Since its first performance in the early 1600s, the production has gone different permutations. Race—specifically the ethnic background of the lead actor—has historically been a major focus. Another theme is the gender role of Desdemona and Emilia’s characters, the ostensibly innocuous wives who are murdered by their husbands. Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is usually characterized as saintly and the overly obedient wife, while Emilia, Iago’s wife, is earthier and more assertivethan Desdemona because of her class and avocation of justified female infidelity. The portrayal of these characters seems like an inactive female role, as they’re obedient and their husbands are fools. Feminist critiques such as Carol Thomas Neely’s Women and Men in Othello, paint Desdemona as an active character and Emilia as more daring than the male characters because she is the only one who stands up to Othello. Even if that is true, they are still reactive roles and ultimately ineffectual. An alternative direction—where Desdemona and Emilia aren’t necessarily innocent but the audience wouldn’t lose the sexism theme—would give these roles a new vitality, distant from these “conventional interpretations.”
I propose Emilia as the mastermind behind Othello’s, Desdemona’s, and Iago’s demise. This portrayal will make Emilia and Desdemona newly relevant in what is fundamentally an anti-feminist play. On a textual basis, nothing in this new presentation could be argued as something outside of Shakespeare’s original intention, even if it could be denied on a historical basis.
In conventional interpretations, Iago is the engine behind the characters actions, since he hates Othello and he conjures a plan to dupe him into thinking his wife is having an affair. Othello easily defeats all the obstacles he faces early on: He convinces the senate that he did not improperly seduce Desdemona, which he does with ease; then he must defeat the Turks at Cyprus, but they are dissolved before these characters even reach the stage. Really, Othello has nothing to do but hang around until Iago gives him the motivation to question his wife’s fidelity. Even when Othello moves to to prove Desdemona’s infidelity, he is acting like Iago’s puppet. Iago’s desire to punish Othello and Roderigo’s desire for Othello’s wife, Desdemona are the only two measurable goals. One could argue that Roderigo is on Iago’s schedule, is completely dependent on Iago, and is only seen with Iago or completing one of his tasks. No active character has any integral goals independent of Iago’s master plan.
If Othello is reacting and his motivations are only a secondhand extension of Iago’s super-goal, then the women play an even meeker role. Desdemona has no choice but to be this guiltless victim. Desdemona is a female character with the potential to be strong and active but is made passive because all her goals are accomplished. She pursues her lover against her father’s will, but that’s solved in the first act after her defense in the senate for Othello. Even her defense seems pointless, since Othello is established as the Venetian’s only hope against the Turks in Cyprus.
Once on Cyprus she is the focus of Othello’s suspicions, but she is unaware of this until he is about to murder her, so the majority of the play she is unable to defend herself against slander. In this situation the only option left to make Desdemona a positive character is to make her as virtuous as possible to make the accusations against her seem more outrageous. Unfortunately the second half of the play shows a cowed Desdemona that is at least outwardly obedient to an abusive Othello.
Shakespeare wrote her character into a corner: She accepts her fate or she waits around as a means to survive. In either case, from a traditional production point, she plays an inactive character.
Similarly Emilia, although usually more uninhibited than Desdemona, is also fairly inactive. Her story parallels Desdemona’s situation because they are both victims of their husbands’ jealousy. Emilia’s abusive relationship is older than Desdemona’s and thus she has learned to live with it. She has already accepted the idea of infidelity in a woman, even if she isn’t guilty of it herself. There is an unhappy resignation to her position, mixed with an odd need to please, which is why she aids Iago’s plot and steals Desdemona’s handkerchief. But she barely steals the handkerchief; she finds the handkerchief by chance. The only action she takes is choosing to give it to Iago. She is simply a victim figure like Desdemona. In a conventional production, the best that can be said of her is she is guiltless because she waits around for the world to fall on her and Desdemona’s heads.
Any example where Desdemon’s or Emilia’s “active participation” can be directly linked to Iago’s skillful manipulation. I would even argue that she’s ignorant to it. The women, like Othello in a greater sense, are puppets used to complete Iago’s designs, therefore any significance their actions may have had otherwise is diminished. They are a female pawn in a man’s game.
If Emilia is the super-mastermind behind all of Iago’s machinations and Desdemona is guilty of having an affair with Cassio, it would effectively temper the portrayal of the these inactive characters. This interpretation is concerned an alternative performance, not a alternative script like Paula Vogel did in her Othello play Desdemona or Howard Barker did with Middleton’s Women Beware Women. In this production, Emilia’s motivation would be jealousy, because Othello has in fact “twixt my [Iago’s] sheets done my [Iago’s] office,”but he has since dropped Emilia for Desdemona. The audience would be keyed into Emilia's plotting by her presence during Iago’s monologues. She would lurk in the background as he confides his plan to the audience, and his asides would allow Emilia to take note of his plan. Emilia and the audience would know more than Iago, thus making Emilia the stronger character. Emilia would then almost certainly gain the audience’s sympathy as viewers usually side with the most intelligent character. Her affair with Othello will be obvious from the affirming gestures such as nodding, or guilty shrugs that mock Iago during his speech (in II.i) when he says, “I do suspect the lusty Moor/Hath lept into my seat.”
This would serve two purposes: breaking Iago’s ability to connect with the audience, as Emilia can always undermine everything he says; and building comedic potential, as Iago becomes totally unaware of his surroundings. When Iago thinks he is moving the plot forward, Emillia is actually upstaging his actions. Emilia can predict Iago’s evil actions, and as he tries to win the audience over, comedic opportunities will arise.
As it’s established that Othello did sleep with Emilia, it fuels Iago’s emotions and his actions are no longer driven by “motiveless maliciousness.” Othello is changed from a paranoid man wracked by jealousy into a hypocrite with a secret past and thus the anti-feminist bent of the play is turned on its head. The play instantly centers on a female protagonist out for justified revenge rather than a vaguely motivated male protagonist that makes all of his innocent female victims looks like fools.
In the new interpretation Emilia and Desdemona are guilty of infidelity, but they are justified by the actions of their misogynist husbands, thus making them more active characters. In the tradition performance, Desdemona is innocent and only accused of sleeping with Cassio. She becomes completely inactive in Act 4, Scene1 where she is beaten and ordered around by Othello with no justification. The best that can be said of her as a character here is that she is playing the obedient wife in order to wait out Othello’s rage so that she can make her next move. But if Desdemona is actually guilty of an having an affair, then Act 4, Scene 1 and the rest of the play take on new significance. Desdemona is no longer ignorantly falling into Othello’s jealous clutches, but instead, she is actively trying to avoid being caught.
The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona also changes from one of close companionship to tacit enemies. Desdemona is the usurper of Emilia’s place with Othello, and thus Emilia uses Iago to destroy Desdemona and Othello’s relationship by providing Iago with the handkerchief, being fully aware of his plan. Emilia loves Othello because he is strong and forthright, and based on his treatment of Desdemona before his jealousy takes over, he must have been a gracious and attentive lover—everything that Iago is not.
By the end of the play Emilia must recognize that she cannot have Othello back as a lover, as he is consumed first by his love for Desdemona and then by his suspicion of her. Emilia is driven by her sexual attraction to Othello, which turns to violence when she figures that it will be unrequited. In Act 4, Scene 2, Emilia’s reticence about the handkerchief is no longer about protecting an abusive husband, but it is now about holding back information in order to lead her rival to her destruction. Obviously this pits the women against each other as if it was a Thomas Middleton play, but at least the women are now the most active participants in the production.
The beauty of this production would be that none of the text would be amended. All of the changes would be done through direction of the action of the female characters. In this way the direction could help change the interpretation of the play itself. It would not be a separate, adjunct piece that could be talked about along side Shakespeare’s Othello, it would change the way that Othello is viewed. In the very least, to make Desdemona and Emilia the central figures would be a fair retribution for the hundreds of female characters played by males in Renaissance England.