The character of Emilia is often overlooked in Shakespeare’s Othello, and it is easy to see why. The issues of racism and domestic violence dominate the action, leaving the wife of scheming Iago and attendant to Desdemona to fall into the shadows.
That is, until her speech in Desdemona’s bedchamber. This intimate, female space is characterised by the action of Emilia ‘unpinning’ Desdemona, as their husbands leave for a walk. At this point, Emilia adds her own opinions on marriage and fidelity which are surprisingly cynical and insightful. At this point, I began to see her as a character in her own right, with an original perspective to add to the play’s drama.
After reading about the textual history of this play, I found that this specific speech was not present in the First Folio collection in 1623, which was the first full collection of Shakespeare’s works published after his death. However, it was included in the longer Second Quarto edition of Othello, published in 1630. This simple addition gives Emilia’s character a much more defined role, and has had an impact on recent feminist interpretations of Shakespeare.
I always find listening to Shakespeare a lot easier, and luckily this speech was chosen by the Guardian as a part of their ‘Shakespeare Solo’ series. (This clip is only a minute long, but Eileen Atkins really brings the speech to life.)
What I love about this adaptation is the way Atkins pauses after each question, which really gives the message a chance to sink in. Also, the glass of wine adds to the image of a wise, long-suffering wife who is sick of her husband’s bullshit.
I’ll also include a typed version of the speech from the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play, as the poetic language is really beautiful.
Emilia: Yes, a dozen – and as many to th’ vantage, As would store the world they played for. 80
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us, 85
Or scant our former having in despite-
Why, we have galls; and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know,
Their wives have sense like them; they see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour 90
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 so too: And have not we affections, 95
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
 Michael Neill ed. Othello, (Oxford World Classics: Oxford, 2006), Act IV, Scene 3,79-98) p.181.