Aveek Sen Othello

What Emilia Knew: Shakespeare Reads James

While recently rereading Derrida’s beautiful essay, “On Forgiveness”, I found myself imagining a story around it. So, the essay became one about a scene, rather than an idea, of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is mad,” Derrida writes, “It must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible.” I had been writing about Tagore’s Ghare Baire too, and, when I got tired of working, watching bits of Antonioni’s La Notte on YouTube. These night-haunted and night-haunting masterpieces by Tagore and Antonioni came together in my head and provided me the key – the ‘theory’, as it were – to reading Derrida’s piece on forgiveness, rather than the other way round.

My titillations have no foot-notes

And their memorials are the phrases
Of idiosyncratic music.

– Wallace Stevens, “Jasmine’s Beautiful Thoughts Underneath the Willow”


My reading of Shakespeare’s Othello, in this essay, is founded on assumptions that are now unfashionable enough to have become retro-chic. Francis Ford wonders in The Merry Wives of Windsor if “experience” might be “a jewel – that I have purchas’d at an infinite rate.” I believe that a critical approach to Shakespeare’s plays and poems has to engage with their truth to ordinary as well as extraordinary human experience. This is not a repudiation of historicism, but an acknowledgement of how we create, encounter, live, understand, and are, history. Our reading of Shakespeare is nourished by our perceptions of, and curiosity about, other people, other lives and relationships, and by the books we read, the pictures we like to look at, the films and music we cannot forget. All this is part of what Keats had called “the world of Circumstances” in one of his letters. It is the world that holds the canon, the non-canon and the archive, and enriches, complicates, distracts and even frustrates teaching and scholarship.

The renewal of my interest in Othello is linked to a few everyday events. First, teaching Shakespeare to a group of fervently imaginative high-school students. Second, conversations with an undergraduate anxious about her theatrical debut as Emilia. Third, listening again to Tullio Serafin’s 1960 version of Verdi’s operatic version of the play. Fourth – and this explains the title of my essay – an abiding, and often harrowed, fascination with the relentless, but immensely rewarding, difficulties of Henry James’s late fiction, especially The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount. Finally, freed by my current profession from having to ‘apply’ theory as a tool-kit for ‘unpacking’ texts, I have at last begun to take pleasure in theory, especially Foucault and late Derrida – a pleasure that is not essentially different from the pleasures of art, literature and conversation.

While recently rereading Derrida’s beautiful essay, “On Forgiveness”, I found myself imagining a story around it. So, the essay became one about a scene, rather than an idea, of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is mad,” Derrida writes, “It must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible.” I had been writing about Tagore’s Ghare Baire too, and, when I got tired of working, watching bits of Antonioni’s La Notte on YouTube. These night-haunted and night-haunting masterpieces by Tagore and Antonioni came together in my head and provided me the key – the ‘theory’, as it were – to reading Derrida’s piece on forgiveness, rather than the other way round.

I realized that this two-way traffic, turning theory into fiction and fiction into theory, was much more fun, and true to how one muddles through the simultaneities of life in linear time. I began to understand what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak meant when she wrote that she reads Freud not as science but as philosophy. In my reading of Othello, instead of placing both Shakespeare and Henry James on the literature side of the theory/literature divide, I will use James to read Shakespeare. And in this way of reading, the fact that James knew his Shakespeare is much less interesting to me than my belief that Shakespeare knew his James. In any case, two frightfully intelligent people are perfectly capable of reversing the direction of literary history.


This essay, then, is a Jamesian reading of Shakespeare’s Emilia. It is also an attempt to translate the Emilia-marks on the Shakespearean page into a probable and possible woman incarnated in the theatre. Emilia – and perhaps Gertrude and Portia are very much in the same league, as people and as characters, with James’s Maggie Verver and Milly Theale. I find both Maggie and Milly, the princess and the dove, profoundly sinister creatures – in the depths of their half-willed capacity for denied and resisted knowledge, for seeing what they want to see and believing what suits them to believe, for their skillfully averted recognitions, and then for using these evasions and denials to arrange people into situations – pathetically, yet magnificently, “with a high headshake”, as James would say. The fullest account of this is given in Kate Croy’s description of Milly Theale to Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove: “She never wanted the truth…She wanted you. She would have taken from you what you could give her and been glad of it, even if she had known it false. You might have lied to her from pity, and she have seen you and felt you lie, and yet…she would have thanked you and blessed you and clung to you but the more. For that was your strength, my dear man – that she loves you with passion.”

These tendencies are often not adequately addressed by critics, who prefer, disappointingly, to turn Maggie and Milly into saints or martyrs. Critics like Martha Nussbaum, who approach James out of the goodness of their hearts, are often appalled by the lack of sqeamishness and sentimentality with which James confronts sordid, and sordidly tragic, human arrangements. Yet this hard, unflinching gaze, chillingly captured in John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James, also belongs to the “master of nuance and scruple” that Auden had written about in his poem, “At the Grave of Henry James”. It is the James for whom a high reticence, a fastidious disdain for providing “weak specifications” became an imperative of good taste. This called for a narrative method of fathomless suggestion, of being able to intimate just about everything without saying very much, forcing the reader to bring to the text a whole universe of observation, interpretation, suspicion, surmise, speculation, conjecture and inference. In the preface to The Turn of the Screw, James calls this the “utmost conceivability”. James’s account of how this works within the story could well be a description of how the Iago-Emilia marriage works on the reader, spectator, actor or director: “Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough…and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy…and horror…will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.”

It is no coincidence that these words – observation, suspicion, surmise, inference – are keywords in the Iago-language, particularly in the quasi-legal and empiricist language that Iago refines for Othello in Act III, scene iii, Shakespeare’s great Suggestion Scene. To “suggest” had a corrupting, evil frisson in Shakespeare’s English, lost in modern usage: “Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,/ Which, like two spirits do suggest me still” (Sonnet 144). This Jamesian and Shakespearean art of suggestion is a form of mimesis, a way of representing reality – not always, or not simply, a world of fact, but a world of the probable and the possible, which often demands from us a corresponding act of what A.D. Nuttall had called “humane inference”, “a willingness to enter the proffered dream”. By looking at Emilia alongside some of James’s characters, we begin to see the remarkable scope of Shakespeare’s mimesis as one of the founts, perhaps even the sacred one, from which James drew the resources for his art.

In Othello, Shakespeare interlaces a tragic opera with a domestic novel. The play’s mimetic registers cover the entire range from Verdi to something like Ingmar Bergman’s six-part television serial of the Seventies, Scenes from a Marriage. Its episodes had titles like “The Art of Sweeping Things under the Carpet” and “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”. When Shakespeare took the story from Giraldi Cinthio’s collection, published a year after Shakespeare was born, he made a few startling changes that define Emilia’s role in the play. First, Cinthio’s Iago was driven by his unreciprocated lust for Desdemona, whereas Shakespeare’s Iago remains sexually uninterested in her. He would have been less monstrous if he had, indeed, fallen in love, or lust, with Desdemona. He mentions, almost unmindfully, that Othello may have slept with Emilia and coolly considers the possibility of deciding to resent this, but only to give a salutary edge to his professional rancour. At every other level, and most of all at the sexual level, Iago doesn’t care if his wife, Emilia, is being unfaithful to him. His principal motive, declared in no uncertain terms, is professional envy. In fact, although Iago is the prime and inexhaustible source of the play’s sexual imaginings, its racially and sexually disturbed fantasy-world, he remains the only person unmoved by lust, focused single-mindedly on his own sense of professional deprivation.

This is the sort of person Emilia has been married to for a few years. In Cinthio, they have a three-year-old daughter. In Shakespeare, they appear to be childless. In Cinthio, both the couples were married for a while – and Othello and Desdemona very happily married – before things start going terribly wrong. In Shakespeare, the “long time” of the Iago-Emilia marriage is juxtaposed with Othello and Desdemona’s “short time”, with the latter’s conjugal inexperience. Iago’s scheme operates in this “long time”, giving to the play its notorious double time scheme. This lends to the operatic intensity of Othello and Desdemona’s soaring passion a more mundane and novelistic dimension of “slow time”. Unlike Othello and Desdemona, who come too soon to the iron gates of life, Iago and Emilia have had world enough and time, in which to turn over the many accretions of a “long” marriage. (Shakespeare likes portraying the many faces of marriage by juxtaposing old and new couples. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the earnest and tormented young lovers are taken under the wings of a dangerously batty old couple. Titania and Oberon are irrepressible aristocrats, both quite helplessly promiscuous, capable of every kind of meanness with each other, yet somehow carrying on together through habit, mutual fondness and a perverse sense of fun, stepping out of bizarre transgressions to dance fairy rings together. Theseus and Hippolyta, in spite of their colourful past, appear anodyne and Edwardian next to this splendidly droll pair – Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman next to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.)

Cinthio’s Emilia is a “beautiful and honourable young woman”. The mid-18th-century English translation of Cinthio, obviously influenced by Shakespeare, describes her as “fair and honest”. Desdemona spends a lot of time with her at Iago’s house, and during one of these visits, it is Iagowho uses his infant daughter to filch the handkerchief from her. But although Cinthio deprives Emilia of agency in the handkerchief plot, he gives her full knowledge of the matter: “The wife of the ensign who knew everything (for it was she whom her husband had wished to use as his tool in killing the lady, but she would never consent) dared not tell [Desdemona] anything for fear of her husband.” Then she disappears altogether from Cinthio’s narrative as Iago’s plot unfolds. Desdemona is clobbered to death by Iago with a stocking filled with sand, Othello slain by Desdemona’s relatives and Iago dies miserably at home after being severely tortured. Unspecified periods of time pass between these events. Emilia, however, reappears at the very end of Cinthio’s story as the sole survivor and repository of the facts of the case. “All these events were told after his death by the Ensign’s wife, who knew the facts as I have told them to you,” says Cinthio’s narrator.

What Shakespeare does with this is extraordinary, and wonderfully Jamesian. He exactly reverses Cinthio’s use of Emilia, which gives her knowledge but no agency. Shakespeare’s Emilia is persistently associated with the handkerchief-stealing, the lowest plot-element in the play. He gives her full agency at this level. But simultaneously, the question of her knowledge – and, equally important, her motive – is kept unclear to the very end and grows tantalizingly opaque. Agency, consciousness and motivation, doing and knowing, are therefore finely and inscrutably wedged apart. The “register” of Emilia’s consciousness remains obscured by what James calls, in The Golden Bowl, “a great white curtain”. The phrase is from James’s discussion of Maggie in his preface to the novel. James also declares in this preface that the “essence of any representational work is of course to bristle with immediate images”. But this bristling “representative surface” and “the play of representational values” in no way detract from the “appeal to incalculability”. By making Emilia embody the incalculable, while associating her with the vicious triviality of the handkerchief plot, Shakespeare places her across an entire range of “representational values”, from low intrigue to high tragedy, although visually she is always kept in the margins of the action, in the penumbra of the Othello-darkness. In The Golden Bowl, as the tragedy of Charlotte and Amerigo’s entrapment in adultery moves into the sublime, the sordidness and horror of the situation begin to be felt more and more relentlessly in Maggie’s curtained consciousness. This counterpointing of an ascent into tragic sublimity with an inexorable descent into quotidian horror is exactly paralleled in the interlacing of the Othello-Desdemona love-duet with the Iago-Emilia marriage.


Emilia’s first appearance in the play is in a scene that “bristles” unyieldingly, to the point of creating a problem with editors, actors and directors. This is the opening scene of the second act in Cyprus – a long scene of desultory conversation among the Venetians, as they wait on the headland for Othello’s arrival. Desdemona is anxious and restive, and her companions – Emilia and Iago, together with the worshipping Cassio and the inflamed Roderigo – try to help her while away the time. The texture of this scene brilliantly captures the drift of polite social talk, what Iago calls “chronicling small beer”. But there is an Emilia-shaped hole in this texture, very similar to those astutely choreographed scenes in Jane Austen – usually at balls, private theatricals or in the Upper Rooms in Bath – where her mousy, silent heroines are silhouetted against a background of chatter. This is how we initially get to know Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

As Emilia joins this little gathering, Cassio greets her with a kiss, assuring her husband that it is merely a “show” – although somewhat “bold” – of “courtesy”. Iago immediately absorbs Cassio’s courtesy into his own brand of bawdy: “Sir, would she give you so much of her lips/ As of her tongue she oft bestows on me/ You’d have enough.” To this Desdemona interjects, “Alas! She has no speech.” Iago disagrees, for Emilia talks so much in bed that he can’t go to sleep: “She puts her tongue a little in her heart/ And chides with thinking.” Then, and only then, Emilia answers him: “You have little cause to say so.” The impeccable playfulness that Cassio and Desdemona have kept up so effortlessly between them has therefore been broken into twice. Once by Iago’s gratuitous and suggestive disclosures regarding Emilia’s bedroom habits. And then by Emilia’s words, “You have little cause to say so.” She is the first to use the play’s most famous word, “cause”, and her smouldering quietness immediately strikes a contrary note. She directly and exclusively addresses her husband in a conversation that has so far been strenuously public. What do her words imply? She could be saying, “You are misrepresenting me to these people because, actually, I hardly speak at all,” thereby endorsing Desdemona’s “Alas! She has no speech.” Or, she could be picking up Iago’s intriguing “she…chides with thinking” in order to say, “You can’t say this because you have no idea of what I think.” Either reading immediately opens up an area of darkness that is always present at the heart of the play: the realm of what another person could be thinking. It is an inwardness that is imponderable, cannot be possessed and is therefore obscurely threatening. John Bayley calls it “the ungraspable element in the live and familiar person” in The Characters of Love. It later becomes Iago’s trump-card and Othello’s greatest fear. Later in this scene, Iago’s mock-misogynist badinage with Desdemona imagines a woman who “could think, and ne’er disclose her mind”. And after Iago has successfully aroused in Othello the desire for “ocular proof”, he describes Desdemona’s “honour” as “an essence that’s not seen”. But it is Emilia who first begins to embody this essence, this baffling and maddening reticence that resists the will to intimate knowledge. And her identification with this quality happens in the midst of social chatter.

Desdemona salvages this potentially embarrassing moment between husband and wife by starting to flirt with the husband. Her flirtatiousness in this scene is also a part of her innate graciousness, her good breeding makes her unwilling to impose her own impatience and nervousness upon others. (She shares this quality with her maturer reincarnation, Hermione, in The Winter’s Tale.) Emilia again refuses to join the little game of Fishing for Compliments being played by Iago and Desdemona, and again there is a quietly dissonant moment between husband and wife, a vicious little aside. “You shall not write my praise,” says Emilia. “No, let me not,” answers Iago. Is this playful, or nasty?

Throughout the scene, Iago skates smoothly, like a skilled waiter with his eye on the tip, between badinage and concern. He plays along with Desdemona, yet also lets her know, with just the right degree of unobtrusiveness, that he is alert to her restlessness, while understanding and respecting her good manners in concealing it in public. His hasty aside with Emilia contrasts with his brief exchange with Desdemona, who asks, sotto voce, in the middle of all this talk, “There is one gone to the harbour?” “Ay madam”, Iago immediately assures her, before resuming, in a different voice, the public façade of playful unconcern. Emilia is throughout a spectator to her husband’s canny and customized attentiveness. As he keeps it up with Desdemona, Emilia is expected to keep it up with him – not out of a natural and mutual conjugal rhythm, but out of a tight, furtive pressure put on her by her husband, an occasional twitch of what James calls the “silken leash”, a pressure that is up to Emilia to keep out of the public eye. What builds up in this scene, in a kind of tedious “long time”, is the sense of a wordlessly resentful fear confronting this wordless pressure, a slow arm-twisting that achieves an unsavoury, precarious, but continually resisted complicity between husband and wife. Shakespeare creates a space for this little portrait of a marriage between two “high-wrought” moments, between Cassio’s vaulting praise of the “divine Desdemona” and the fine rapture of her reunion with Othello: “O my fair warrior! …My dear Othello!” The beautiful music of the “enchaféd flood” introduces and concludes this quotidian interlude of tense, small talk, for which Verdi could not have made room in his opera.


Emilia, however, is not allowed to remain just a passive looker-on. And in drawing her into the action, Shakespeare blurs, again in a very Jamesian manner, the line between active and passive. Profound and unsparing questions of volition and responsibility are raised by both artists. In the preface to The Golden Bowl, James writes about “the religion of doing”: “the whole conduct of life consists of things done, which do other things in their turn, just so our behaviour and its fruits are essentially one and continuous and persistent and unquenchable, so that the act has its way of abiding and showing and testifying, and so, among our innumerable acts, are no arbitrary, no senseless separations.” Moreover, we can do things with words, and with silences. And again, later, in the preface: “we recognize betimes that to ‘put’ things is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them”.

Both Emilia and Maggie never quite face the fact that even victimhood does not absolve them from this “religion of doing”. Emilia’s ineffectuality, her submissiveness, her fear, her inability to act within her own marriage inevitably and actively begin to determine the brutalization of Desdemona’s marriage. And what we see her doing in the face of this unavoidable fact is choose between her loyalty to Desdemona and her own stakes in the situation. What does she want to ‘keep’, “to have and to hold”? Up to what point can she risk these investments so that she could stay on Desdemona’s side? And where does she draw the line in this matter? Shakespeare’s gaze on Emilia as she confronts or evades these questions and decisions is minute and unflinching. He makes her steal and lie – acts that lead up to the violence at the end. Similarly, in The Wings of the Dove, James does not hesitate to present Milly Theale’s apparently selfless generosity as also a way of “promoting her [own] illusion”, her spectral millions ruining other relationships, creating “communities of doom”.


Iago’s evil is sub-tragic, and its ability to trivialize tragic gravitas finds its best symbol in the handkerchief. Like all such tokens, the handkerchief combines the trivial and the magical. It also becomes a device for transforming an invisible “essence” – female honour – into “ocular proof”, a quasi-legal exhibit providing evidence of a sexual offence. In James’s novel, this is exactly what happens to the eponymous golden bowl. An entire range of values, meanings and functions, from the quotidian and absurd to the nearly-supernatural, attaches itself to it. Emilia soon gets mired in the lowest level of a similar tokenism – a “wrangling with inferior things”, which makes her, at that level, an agent of the “plot”, her husband’s as well as the playwright’s. She loses her status as “gentlewoman” and begins to be perceived as a maid, a bawd or duenna, by her husband and by the courteous Cassio. Yet, her debasement to the plot is countered by a simultaneous deepening of the mystery that her reticence in the Small Beer scene had suggested.

Compared to the slow unfolding of the Suggestion Scene between Othello and Iago, the moment when Emilia picks up the handkerchief is teasingly brief. It reminds me of the Ancient Mariner shooting down the albatross, inexplicably, in an instant, and of the absolute externality of that single, momentous act in Coleridge’s otherwise long and nightmarishly inward poem: “With my cross-bow/ I shot the ALBATROSS.” Shakespeare’s depiction of Emilia’s act is also strangely shallow, lacking any obvious psychological depth, thus giving it a brief, fleeting quality. Paradoxically, Emilia speaks a soliloquy at this point, which is more self-address than taking the audience into confidence (as her husband frequently does). “My wayward husband hath a hundred times/ Wooed me to steal it”, she tells herself. This then is in “long time”. “Steal” betrays an awareness of wrongdoing, which is fudged by “wayward”, investing Iago with a self-willed perversity that somehow absolves Emilia from being clear-headed about what she is up to. “It’s just one of his weird obsessions,” she tries to convince herself. And then comes the locus classicus of willed evasion: “what he will do with it/ Heaven knows, not I,/ I nothing, but to please his fantasy.” The sequence of words, “not I,/ I nothing”, is a fascinating chiasmus linking disavowal of knowledge with female self-effacement, although the repeated “I”s inscribe the self as a repressed moral agent. The “I” can also be heard as “Ay” [as in “Ay, my lord”], and the sounds form a “no-yes-yes-no” sequence [not-ay-ay-nothing].

Emilia’s subjectivity here attempts to shrink to a “nothing”, to disappear altogether into a state of complete moral inaction. Like McCavity, the Mystery Cat, she is trying hard not to be there, to become more cavity than cat. However, another level of mysteriousness is negatively invoked by her words – a realm of imputed or transferred agency that is linked, not to a rational motive, but to “fantasy”, something subjective, arbitrary, ungovernable and unknowable. In this connection, even “Heaven knows” suggests much more than a mere colloquialism, invoking a sphere of inscrutable operation that indulgently encompasses human action. Emilia’s words here also recall an earlier moment. This is when Desdemona sweeps out of Othello’s presence with Emilia, after their first marital tiff. She has got on Othello’s nerves, “mamm’ring on” about Cassio, and Othello asks her, in a tone he has never used with her before, “to leave me but a little to myself”. Instantly, the atmosphere of their intimacy, and of the play, changes. Desdemona manages to make her keen surprise sound like mock outrage: “Emilia, come. – Be as your fancies teach you:/ Whate’er you be, I am obedient.” Hermione too, baffled and humiliated, connects wifely passivity with a form of coercion that is inexplicable and dream-like, conjugal tyranny as phantasmagoria: “My life stands in the level of your dreams,/ Which I’ll lay down.”

The dialogue between Emilia and Iago, which follows this soliloquy, places the handkerchief within a different nexus. The handkerchief moves out of the Othello-Desdemona marriage and becomes a counter in the ghastly play of control and appeasement between the other couple. We are given the first stark glimpse of Emilia’s tensely resentful, yet helpless, investment in Iago. Iago reduces her to a cussedly teasing, ineffectual juvenility, putting in a token resistance that is quickly snuffed out and dismissed. She tries again to fudge the issue of stealing, devising an elaborate way around Iago’s brutal question, “Hast stolen it from her?” Iago denies her any moral high ground with a vengeance, as if pointing up her own hypocrisy in pretending not to know why he wants the handkerchief. The shallow compassion of Emilia’s “Poor lady, she’ll run mad/ When she shall lack it” suddenly reveals a heartlessness in Emilia that tries desperately to match Iago’s. Her lines could be particularly chilling in the theatre, when accompanied with a nervous titter from Emilia.

This brief dialogue, when properly played on stage, is discomfiting, because it depicts something that absorbed both Shakespeare and James. In The Wings of the Dove, James calls it “the inevitabilities of the abjection of love”, although “love” may not be the right word for what keeps Iago and Emilia together. The writer of the sonnets and creator of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice knew abjection very well, and his exploration of it in these texts and in Othello hinges around the word, “use”. Emilia and Desdemona play with the word at the end of the Willow Scene: “let them use us well”. “The only horror is not to be used,” writes Marguerite Yourcenar in Fires.


But perhaps I was wrong, and Emilia shoots her albatross, not when she picks up the handkerchief, but when she lies to Desdemona about it. This lie is truly her act, and it will come back to haunt her later. The Clown who heralds this scene quibbles continuously on lying. This transition from stealing to lying in Emilia’s moral unfolding takes place alongside Othello’s now inexorable movement towards what Iago calls “the door of truth”, a phrase that suggests an inaccessibly private realm that shuts Othello out. Again, Emilia’s lie constitutes the briefest moment: “Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?”, “I know not, madam.” It is the simplest disavowal of knowledge. She quickly changes the topic to Othello’s jealousy, and then Othello enters to Emilia’s “Look where he comes.” Increasingly, it is Emilia who announces, almost furtively, the entry of their husbands. There is a rising alertness in her and a sense of having to quickly change her tone with the entry of the men. This creates a peculiarly unsettling atmosphere of female complicity, unsettling because this is a complicity that Desdemona begins to rely on, but wecannot trust, for we know Emilia better. She witnesses Othello’s anger over the lost handkerchief, and after he leaves Desdemona again expresses her puzzlement over losing it. Emilia changes the topic again, but this time her evasion is more complex. She gets into her railing-against-men mode with a little outburst beginning “’Tis not a year or two shows us a man”. There is another long speech like this in the Willow Scene, and what they do is sharpen the sense of her ineffectuality within the situation. She seems to have drawn the line with her lie. She can protect Desdemona only up to a point. She would defend Desdemona’s honour valiantly to Othello, as she does a little later. But that is all. And this withdrawal on her part contributes to the growing sense of danger, of Desdemona’s vulnerability, in the play. Emilia’s occasional bouts of eloquence suggest genuine and complex personal resonances, but most of them are strategically timed to prevent other conversations. Emilia’s eloquence can actually ‘do’ nothing to help Desdemona. She superficially resembles the shrewish Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, but is actually quite frighteningly incapable of performing the acts of rescue that Paulina pulls off in that play, turning tragedy into tragicomedy, and losing a husband in the process.

This is why a sentimental reading of the Willow Scene overlooks the nature of Shakespeare’s theatrical and mimetic achievement in it. Emilia and Desdemona are together in this “awful parenthesis”, but they talk across an abyss, the abyss of Emilia’s accumulated lies and silences, and of her by-now-quite-settled sense of what she cannot, and will not, do for Desdemona. They are together on the other, intimate, side of the “door of truth”, but it still remains half-open for Emilia to leave ‑ and she knows this. She must, and will, leave at the end of the scene. This too, like the Small Beer Scene, is a scene of desultory conversation. But there is an ineffable inner-chamber whimsy, even lightheadedness, in Desdemona, in spite of the abiding pensiveness. Woven into this pensiveness is an obscure sense of foreboding, of a suspended brutality that dimly gathers around Emilia’s ministering, but strangely detached, presence. When Desdemona asks Emilia if the itching in her eyes “bode[s] weeping”, Emilia answers, “’Tis neither here nor there.”

Breaking the flow of the Willow Song, there are astonishing moments of reflection, even an enigmatic abstractedness. “All’s one”, Desdemona reflects at one point, “Good faith, how foolish are our minds.” And a little later, according to the Folio reading, she suddenly tells Emilia that she finds her cousin, Lodovico, physically attractive: “This Lodovico is a proper man. A very handsome man.” (Incidentally, it was in Lodovico’s presence that Othello had hit her.) Most editors (usually men), including the newest Arden one, stumble here and give this line to Emilia. But, to me, it feels exactly right, and true to life, that Desdemona should speak these words, and speak them at thispoint. Most Shakespearean heroines are capable of talking like this without the slightest misgiving, and this is precisely the sort of detail through which Shakespeare’s realism works. This is a peculiarly reflective scene in which the two women’s, especially Desdemona’s, inchoate forebodings are not left behind, but suddenly appear so surreally incomprehensible that they produce a lightheadedness, and a lightheartedness, which can be kept up only for a while, and only in the still centre of a storm.

Towards the end of the scene, Desdemona initiates an important conversation about unfaithful wives, which gets Emilia going until she takes over entirely with her last impassioned oration on wives having “sense”. In the course of this conversation, the two women move further and further apart in their moral stance regarding sex outside marriage. Emilia comes out a materialist and a pragmatist, whereas Desdemona is an idealist. Emilia thinks “The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price/ For a small vice.” It is clear from what follows that by “price” she does not mean “the price to be paid”; her “price” is a variant spelling of “prize”. She will risk her fidelity if the world is her reward. She also thinks that such a deed can be undone, the wrong quickly made right if only it is done “well i’th’dark”, whereas Desdemona would rather not do it at all “by this heavenly light”. Emilia and Desdemona inhabit disparate visions of marriage and separate moral universes, and there is, in Emilia’s “religion of doing”, room for a lie or two, as long as she is not asked to kill.


But in a few moments, Emilia is made to move on from stealing and lying to greater vices, taking her well beyond the pale of the Willow Scene’s domesticated moral relativism. Shakespeare compresses what, in Cinthio, is like a slow draining away of life through a long series of just but brutal punishments. Completely reworking Cinthio’s ending, he pitches Emilia into quite another mode from what she was created for. After learning of Roderigo’s death and Cassio’s wounding, Emilia re-enters the “door of truth” as the ghostly echo of Desdemona’s smothered voice. And till she dies, it is as if she has suddenly discovered centre-stage histrionics. Shakespeare is interlacing again, and at more than one level. First, the double anagnorisis: Othello and Emilia both face the truth of their respective marriages and of their purblind conduct in this sphere. Neither survives this – Othello kills himself and Emilia is killed by Iago. Second – and I’m really more interested in this – Emilia’s assumption into High Tragedy does not quite free her from remaining implicated in lying. Her extreme vocal presence in the last scene is nuanced to the end with a wealth of Shakespearean mischief, similar to what James keeps up with his dying dove, Milly, till the very moment of Millie’s death, and after. For both Othello and Emilia, facing the truths they either had no access to or had deliberately kept at bay means losing everything, everything they had staked. In the case of Emilia – who dies on another woman’s marriage bed – what she lets go of is the idea of “home”. As in his earlier “Speak within doors”, Iago charges her now to “go home”, and she replies, “Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.” So Emilia’s generic elevation from Novella through Domestic Tragedy to High Tragedy becomes a measure of what she loses.

But James wrote of higher, more resilient, loyalties than Emilia’s in his shorter fiction. His 1887 story, “The Liar”, is narrated by a painter who had been rejected by a woman twelve years before he meets her again; she is now married to the “raconteur”, Colonel Clement Capadose. This colonel is known to be “a thumping liar”, modelled on a gentleman, “the most unbridled colloquial romancer”, James once met at a dinner-party in London. The morbidly jealous painter contrives to paint Colonel Capadose in such a way as to expose his pathological lying, in order to “execute a masterpiece of…legitimate treachery”. The once-rejected painter wants to draw out a confession from the woman who had rejected him, now a liar-colonel’s wife, that her life “would have been finer” with the painter. Although the cruel accuracy of the painter’s portrait breaks her down for a while, it is eventually destroyed and she remains loyal to her husband. James describes the painter’s attempted exposé as an “ineffectual experiment”. Writing to his friend, Theodora Sedgwick, James mentions some of his female readers who “declare it is monstrous to have represented [the liar’s wife] as not taking the artist into confidence – & as sticking to her husband.” “We move, my dear Theodora”, James adds, “in dim & tortuous labyrinths & we sit in eternal darkness.” This is the sort of terrain in which Emilia “moves” with Iago.

There is a fine irony working upon Emilia at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Desdemona dies lying in order to protect her husband: “She’s like a liar gone to burning hell.” But Emilia is denied the moral satisfaction of exposing Othello, for which stern task she was raring herself up with every moral absolute she could invoke. But Othello confesses immediately, and then Emilia is faced with the truth about her husband. She repeatedly reduces Iago’s evil to compulsive lying, lacerating herself with the word “lie”: “You told a lie, an odious, damned lie!/ Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie.” But in speaking “as liberal as the north”, she suppresses her own lie to Desdemona and tells a half-truth about her agency in stealing the handkerchief. Iago points this out: “Filth, thou liest.” But Desdemona, the only witness to Emilia’s error of commission, is now dead. There is something excessive about Emilia’s dying moments, which speaks of a torment different from that of being married to an evil man. (James speaks of “the beautiful little eloquence involved in Milly’s avoidances”.) I cannot help finding Emilia’s final moments slightly comic. But her last words are significant: “So speaking as I think, alas, I die.” In drawing attention to her final integrity of speech, these words remain opaquely self-reflexive. They fold in upon themselves, without actually letting on what she thinks. Cinthio’s Emilia knows and tells all at the end. But, in Shakespeare, between Iago and Emilia, the circle of lies and silences remains closed. As Sonnet 138, about “lying together”, puts it: “On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed”. Emilia dies full of words, but never really managing to sound her silences. Bleeding but not killed, Iago becomes an embodiment of the ultimate silence, opting for an infernal reticence that will give out nothing: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./ From this time forth I never will speak word.”


What you know, you know.” If one were to write, God forbid, a book called What Henry Knew, Iago’s words could well be its epigraph. The maddening circularity of Iago’s black-hole of a sentence brings to mind the experience of reading The Sacred Fount ‑ James’s sublime joke, largely at his own expense, teased out into a novel. At the end of this impossible work, the beautiful Grace Brissenden, driven to the last exasperation by James’s pathologically Jamesian narrator, asks the narrator, “Then what on earth do you think?” But soon giving up on a clear answer, she says, simply, “My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!”

Aveek Sen
Aveek Sen

Aveek Sen was associate editor (editorial pages) of The Telegraph, Calcutta. He studied English literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and at University College, Oxford, with a Rhodes Scholarship. He was a lecturer in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He won the Infinity Award 2009 for writing on photography, given by the International Center of Photography, New York. He writes a column called “Art & Life” in The Telegraph, and has written about, and with, a number of contemporary artists like Dayanita Singh, Roni Horn, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and On Kawara. He also writes on music, cinema and everyday life.