Emilia and her “wayward husband”

The last week or so has been Othello soliloquy central here at the Project. I had been focusing mainly on the number of soliloquies and the reading grade levels of our two major characters, Iago and the Moor himself. Today, I want to take a look at the actual text of the only soliloquy of one character who’s not one of those two.

It’s also the only soliloquy by a female character in the play:

I am glad I have found this napkin.
This was her first remembrance from the Moor.
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed me to steal it. But she so loves the token
(For he conjured her she should ever keep it)
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I’ll have the work ta’en out
And give ’t Iago. What he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to please his fantasy.
  • III.iii.290-299

Just after the midpoint in the play, after Iago plants the seeds of doubt in Othello’s brain, we get three soliloquies within a span of less than 100 lines: Othello, Iago, and this one by Emilia sandwiched in between. Desdemona has attempted to relieve Othello’s head pain (which he sees as symbolic of a cuckold’s erupting horns) by binding it with her handkerchief, a gift to her from the Moor, but he pushes it away, and as it falls to the floor, he exits with Desdemona in pursuit. Emilia enters and we get this speech.

She finds the handkerchief, and for this, she is joyous. We don’t know why yet. And she won’t tell us immediately. Instead, she delays that information by giving us a line of exposition: this handkerchief was the first gift or “remembrance” (III.iii.291) from Othello. Then she feeds us the first inklings of why the discovery of the handkerchief brings her happiness.

On more than one occasion, she says, Iago has asked her to steal this handkerchief; “a hundred times” (III.iii.292) is probably hyperbole, but it wasn’t just a single request. Beyond the mere ethics of the situation, Emilia has not stolen it because of the sentimental value Desdemona holds for it: Othello has told her that she needs to keep it forever, and she has kept it “evermore about her // To kiss and talk to” (III.iii.295-6). Despite this, Emilia is willing to take the handkerchief and have it copied (“have the work ta’en out” [III.iii.296]) and then give the copy to Iago.

All of this is crucial to the narrative of the second half of the play.

But what I find interesting are the (not un-)spoken but subtle references to the past…

She refers to Iago as “wayward” (III.iii.292). By this, we know that even she considers Iago to be out of the norm: “erratic, unpredictable” (“wayward, adj. and n. 2” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 6 February 2016.), “manifesting obstinate self-will” (“wayward, adj. and n. 1.c” OED Online.), “untoward” (“wayward, adj. and n. 1.d” OED Online.), “disposed to go against the wishes or advice of other or what is proper or reasonable” (“wayward, adj. and n. 1.a” OED Online.), or just plain “perverse, wrong” (“wayward, adj. and n. 1.b” OED Online.). She doesn’t go out of her way to tell us that he “is” wayward; she doesn’t point it out to us. She simply uses it as an adjective describing him, as if this isn’t news.

When she describes Othello’s appeal to Desdemona regarding the handkerchief, her word choice is interesting: she says he “conjured” (III.iii.294) her to keep it. While in Shakespeare’s day, “conjure” meant “to constrain by oath” (“conjure, v. II” OED Online.), it also meant “to invoke by supernatural power, to effect my magic” (“conjure, v. III” OED Online.). If so inclined, one could link this to the accusations made by Brabantio earlier in the play that Othello “with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood, // Or with some dram, conjured” (I.iii.104-5; emphasis mine) Desdemona to marry him. I mean, after all, Desdemona now kisses and talks to the object, as if under some spell. Do I mean to say that Othello did use such means to win Desdemona? No. But but Emilia’s word choice (with its mirroring of Brabantio) does feed into the irrational (and seemingly subconscious) fear of Othello’s otherness.

She says that only “Heaven knows” (III.iii.298) what Iago wants with the handkerchief; she doesn’t know. She knows “nothing but to please his fantasy” (III.iii.299). She knows only that she must please his “caprice [or] changeful mood” (“fantasy, n. 6” OED Online.) or “liking [or] desire” (“fantasy, n. 7” OED Online.). This ties in nicely with the “erratic” connotation of “wayward.”

It’s a shame “fantasy” didn’t come to mean “a day-dream arising from conscious or unconscious wishes or attitudes” (“fantasy, n. 3.b” OED Online.) until the twentieth century. If that usage was around in Shakespeare’s day, then we might be able to make a connection between this “fantasy” and the “hundred times” Iago had requested the handkerchief, linking this to Othello’s source material, in which the Iago character has been sexually spurned by Desdemona. In this way, the handkerchief, a token of hers, could have fueled Iago’s sexual fantasy.

Alas, ‘tis not to be. And the motivation behind the “hundred” requests remains a mystery.

But why does Emilia know that she must please his whims?

I think the answer isn’t found here in this speech but in her next major speech, her “husbands’ faults” speech to Desdemona in Act Four, Scene Two (IV.ii.86-103). There, she references that a husband might “break out in peevish jealousy” (IV.ii.89). Earlier in the scene, she talks about “cozening slave[s]” (IV.ii.132), the sort of “villainous knave” (IV.ii.139) that “turned [Iago’s] wit the seamy side without // And made [him] to suspect [Emilia] with the Moor” (IV.ii.146-7). This sexual fear or jealousy is something Iago soliloquies about twice earlier in the play: “And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets // H’as done my office” (I.iii.379-80), and “I do suspect the lusty Moor // Hath leaped into my seat” (II.i.292-3). Iago also voices sexual suspicions about Cassio, as well: “I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too” (II.i.304).

If this “peevish jealousy” is based on her own personal experience, then maybe another element of her speech to Desdemona might come from her life as well: “or say they strike us” (IV.ii.90). If Emilia was an battered wife, then she might very well feel the need to please her “wayward husband”‘s every whim.

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