Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: ‘Filth, thou liest’: The Spousal Abuse of Emilia in Othello

by Roxanne Y. Schwab

August 25, 2005


Much has been written about the torment many suffer at the hands of Iago in William Shakespeare’s Othello. But, perhaps, the ensign’s most underrated and constant victim is his wife, Emilia. Although she may not be fully cognizant of it, she has obviously been abused and manipulated by her villainous husband long before the evil machinations upon which the plot turns are set into motion.
This article explores the role of “spousal abuse” in the relationship between Iago and Emilia, and how this treatment has shaped the latter’s mindset. Using various psychoanalytical and literary sources, I propose a definition for this domestic phenomenon and chart how this relationship displays all of the classic symptoms of psychological violence.
Finally, I consider Shakespeare’s motives in creating this fictional relationship and, if Emilia is supposed to serve as a surrogate for the audience, as some critics claim, what the playwright is saying to us.



     Much has been written about the torment William Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Roderigo suffer at the hands of Iago. But, perhaps, the ensign’s most underrated and constant victim is his wife, Emilia, who, though she may not be fully cognizant of it, has obviously been abused and manipulated by her villainous husband long before the evil machinations upon which the plot turns are set into motion.

     Prior to discussing the role of "spousal abuse" in the association of Iago and Emilia and how this treatment has shaped the latter’s mindset, however, it would be prudent to define the term. According to the Handbook for Abused Adults, spousal abuse, or domestic violence, can assume many forms. "Most often," according to the Handbook, "abuse is used to mean physical abuse, such as hitting, kicking, shoving and slapping, the use of a weapon against another, and sexual abuse" (1991, 1). While we do not have the "ocular" proof, as Othello terms it, that Iago has posed a physical threat to Emilia prior to the tragedy’s final scene, the fact that he appears neither shocked nor alarmed and remains silent when Othello impetuously strikes Desdemona might imply that he is no stranger to marital battery.

     But violence is not confined to the physical realm. The torture Iago most overtly inflicts on Emilia falls under the category of "emotional or mental abuse, such as telling someone they are worthless, or promiscuous, or bad" (Handbook, 1991, 1). In this type of brutality, asserts Maria Roy, founder and president of Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, New York, "The same principles of bodily harm are at work, but the injury is far more significant, for it touches the human psyche. . . . The victim senses that something is gravely wrong, but does not identify the source of pain as a form of violence against [her] person" (10). In this way Emilia may feel the sting of Iago’s barbs without being fully aware of their effect upon her well-being.

     Though the contemporary reader might attempt to dismiss Iago’s actions merely as the predominant misogynistic attitude toward women in the sixteenth century, the case is not made so easily. "The very presence of misogynist discourse in the Renaissance," asserts Valerie Wayne, "suggests the instability of that view of women. It was not that one no longer associated women with evil, but that the ideology was at issue and not an unquestioned presupposition or a given of the culture" (158). She goes on to cite a case in which William Shakespeare’s own daughter, Susanna, sued a man for slander to demonstrate the severity of the crime of which Iago is so often guilty. But one need only recall Lodovico’s stunned, "this would not be believe’d in Venice" (IV.i.242), in reaction to the striking of Desdemona, to see that such behavior was not accepted universally in the drama’s time and setting.

     Just as abuse is often difficult to pinpoint, so are abusers, as their backgrounds, ages, races, and economic statuses cover a broad spectrum. Experts have determined a number of characteristics, however, that abusers typically share, which can be applied accurately to Iago. That the ensign has low self-esteem is evident from his first appearance on the scene. He boasts that he is held in such high regard that three influential officials have recommended him for the position as Othello’s lieutenant. Yet his persistent promotion of his own reputation makes one wonder if it is not he himself, rather than Roderigo, whom he is trying to convince of this worth. Iago’s mercurial temper and jealously are apparent immediately in his vehement condemnation of Michael Cassio, who has been promoted in his stead. Wounded by Othello’s slight, the ancient blames the general and others for the impetus that "necessitates" his reprisals. That his response at being passed over far exceeds what is called for in that situation demonstrates the abuser’s tendency toward "overkill."

     His possession of a dual personality becomes obvious as "honest Iago," as he frequently is dubbed, details his deceitful scheme before the audience. It is through these intrigues that the spectator sees his dexterity at dominating and controlling others in order to achieve his desire ends. He accomplishes this by being extremely sensitive to the nuances in other people’s behavior, which, reports Lenore E. Walker, enables abusers "to predict reactions faster than most of us can" (40). As a member of the military, Iago has certainly been exposed to the principle that "might makes right." The abuser, contends Maria Roy, "tends to operate by that same principle. . . . A person continually exposed to such [a physically charged] environment [in which obedience literally can mean the difference between life and death] might well find the specter of a family not completely within his control so threatening that extreme measures seem necessary to avert such a state (108). As Iago is a military traditionalist, prizing seniority over affection in issues of promotion, he likely espouses the same standards on the home front as well, which would include the notion of male supremacy (Walker 36).

     Given that Iago exhibits so many of the traits common to an abusive partner, it is not surprising that his first words to Emilia in the play are aimed at publicly humiliating, and thus controlling, her. His "Sir, would she give you so much of her lips/ As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, / you would have enough" (II.i.91-93) in response to Cassio’s kiss can be interpreted two ways. The more obscure reference would be to French kissing, an intimate component of physical relations that might indicate Iago’s unwarranted suspicion that Cassio is as sexually familiar with his wife as he himself. This thinking parallels a common tenet of the abusive spouse who "is often overly jealous and possessive, finding reasons to believe his wife is unfaithful, no matter how false or unrealistic his beliefs may be" (Handbook, 1982, 7). The ensign also may be bragging about his physical dominance over his spouse, much like the batterers who "Frequently use sex as an act of aggression to enhance self-esteem" (Walker 36).

     The more overt meaning would be that, as most critics suggest, Iago is implicating his wife as a shrew in her words and, later, in her thoughts. Emilia’s silence in response to this degradation would seem to denote that, as Jane Adamson notes of a later scene, "she knows. . . . it is less painful to suffer his scornful abuse than to challenge and try to change him" (247). Her eventual reply, "You have little cause to say so" (II.i.108), is a passive pretense at self-defense, prompting Iago to generalize that all women, his spouse in particular, are conniving whores. In light of this, Emilia’s statement that Iago shall not write her praise seems less a command than a painful acknowledgement that he will never appreciate her, a sentiment with which he heartily agrees. His chauvinistic tendencies will not permit him to praise any woman, as he demonstrates when, under duress, he can only invert his misogynistic revelry to construct hollow acclamations for Desdemona. This would support Freudian Karen Horney’s theory that, "By using disparagement, the male could reassure himself that there was nothing to fear from so poor and inadequate a creature" (qtd. in Davidson 101). This attitude allows for no alternatives. Although Desdemona counsels Emilia to "not learn of him . . . though he be thy husband" (II.i.162), the audience knows from later passages that Iago’s "other half" already is well versed in this disposition.

     Perhaps most telling of Emila’s relationship with her husband is the scene in which the gentlewoman discovers Desdemona’s mislaid handkerchief. Her use of "wayward" to describe Iago reveals his inconstant nature, in keeping with abusive spouses whose partners "could not predict exactly when an acute battering incident would occur" (Walker 73). The assertion that he "hath a hundred times/ Woo’d me to steal it" (III.iii.292-93) intimates that Iago has used sexuality to coerce Emilia into doing his bidding and that the only reason she has not yet complied is because her mistress "reserves it ever more about her" (III.iii.295). Emilia’s admission that she will give the token to her partner, despite her uncertainty regarding his intentions, illustrates her willingness to submit to her husband. She, like other abused women, will "sacrifice for him, spoil him, and not expose him, no matter how unrealistic his demands" (Davidson 63). Her role as "caretaker" supersedes her allegiance to her mistress, to whom she will lie when questioned about the missing token. Noting that she wants nothing but to satisfy Iago’s every whim, Emilia behaves like the mother of a capricious child; Iago as the ‘deserving self’ "demands to be cared for and have his needs given priority" (Russell 43).

     Like other abusers, Iago "ha[s] no awareness that a relationship entail[s] a mutual process that involve[s] consideration of the needs of both parties. Caring, nurturing, supporting, and giving [are] believed to be a one-way process: from the partner to the man" (Russell 43). This is made evident when Emilia offers him the purloined token. She, as Martin Elliot observes, "uses the handkerchief to win her husband’s favour. Since she is treated like a whore, she will behave like a teasing one. . . . talking in terms of money or of a gift" (47) by asking "What will you give me now/ For that same handkerchief? (III.iii.305). This concept of adopting her abuser’s viewpoint in order to gratify him may be why later Emilia is so swift to judge Bianca a strumpet after Iago describes her thus. Bianca, in her retort that "I am no strumpet, but of life as honest/ As you that thus abuse me" (V.I.122) is telling more truth than she knows. Jane Adamson argues that "what little we see of [Bianca} in person certainly supports her claim to honest and strong feelings for Cassio (242). It seems logical, therefore, that Emilia, who is not personally acquainted with Bianca, merely is parroting the illusion Iago holds of all women, his wife in particular. She judges in the manner in which she has been judged.

     Needless to say, Emilia’s conciliatory efforts toward her husband are in vain; his sole interest is in the handkerchief. Labeling her "A good wench" (III.iii.313) because she has served his purpose, he rapidly dismisses her, both mentally and physically. The only acknowledgement she receives is an admonition not to reveal his possession of Desdemona’s memento. Although keeping such a secret would inflict pain upon her mistress, Emilia remains steadfast in her loyalty to Iago. Even witnessing Othello’s rage and his wife’s subsequent bewilderment at his incendiary reaction does not loosen the gentlewoman’s tongue. In fact, so intent is she on adhering to Iago’s order that she refrains from mentioning the handkerchief even to him, despite its causing such painful discord, until his heinous scheme finally is revealed. Perhaps she holds out some hope, as most abused women do, according to Walker, that if she performs according to her husband’s wishes, he will cease mistreating her (33). But that hope must be either very small or held in Emilia’s subconscious as she declares her conviction that men "are all but stomachs, and we all but food;/ They eat us hungrily, and when they are full/ They belch us" (III.iv.103-6). This statement maintains the sexual inference that men need women bodily and that women are "inescapably slaves to their husband’s [appetites]" (Martin 27). Iago’s behavior has taught Emilia that women are morsels that men absorb, just as food is absorbed in the digestive system. The results, however, are often disagreeable, as she observes, causing men to eruct and condemn the very objects they sought to sustain them.

     Emilia’s opening remark that "’Tis not a year or two shows us a man" is very telling in that, according to Walker, "Abuse usually beg[ins] in the first six months of marriage" (32). Thus, it would not take long for Iago and the newly wedded Othello to exhibit the marital mistreatment of which they are capable. Emilia identifies jealousy as the culprit, supporting Del Martin’s view that "profound insecurity" brought about by the possibility of his wife betraying him through infidelity may trigger a husband’s abusive behavior (59). Despite Desdemona’s denial of any extramarital dalliances, Emilia knows through experience that one need not be guilty to bring about the sadistic result. Men, she says, "are not ever jealous for the cause,/ But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster/ Begot upon itself, born on itself" (III.iv.160-62).

     It is probably the effects of this jealousy combined with verbal abuse that prompt Emilia to deliver her impassioned discourse on female infidelity in Act IV. Prior to this, she has been repeatedly demeaned by Iago as they discuss the mistreatment of Desdemona. Her certainty that "some eternal villain . . . devis’d this slander" (IV.ii.130, 133) against her mistress is debunked as an impossibility by her husband, who orders her to modulate her voice. Reminded that he once wrongly suspected his own wife of dallying with the Moor, Iago brands Emilia a fool and commands her to leave. Even though fidelity forbids her from condemning her spouse for his abuse, Emilia is quick to fault Othello for his conduct, wishing Desdemona had never met him. Yet, despite her experience, she fails to recognize as clearly as her mistress the potential danger that abuse sufferers face. She chides Desdemona for considering the possibility of death, much like many battered women who "did not really believe they would die" (Walker 53) as a result of the abuse. Instead Emilia speaks of marital revolt, a subject she would never dare broach with Iago but need not fear contemplating with another victim in the privacy of her bedchamber. But, as Jane Adamson states, there is no reason to believe that the gentlewoman is discussing her actual practices (238). Infidelity here would seem to be a symbol of power, available to men but denied women. Emilia longs for husbands to recognize wives not as property at their complete disposal but as beings similar to themselves who "have sense like them; they see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have" 9IV.iii.94-96). In the relationship of balance and reciprocity she proposes, Emilia envisions the husband, previously considered a cuckold by chauvinist standards, becoming a ruler who acknowledges the contributions and humanity of his helpmate. Her warning to husbands who fail to heed this advice that "The ills we do, their ills instruct us so" (IV.iii.103) evokes images of women in abusive circumstances in which "the escalation of violence and threats, combined with this perception of entrapment and the impact of failed alternatives, culminated in eventual lethal action against their abusers" (Browne 146).

     This exchange between Emilia and Desdemona is significant, according to Evelyn Gajowski, in that it illustrates "the reasons for Emilia’s fierce attachment to Desdemona" (108). Gajowski views Desdemona as a complete innocent who is unprepared for what is happening to her. Emilia, accustomed to accepting the role of caretaker for Iago, assumes a maternal function toward her childlike charge. This bond explains the violent indignation Emilia is able to unleash in Act V, not on her own behalf but on Desdemona’s (Adamson 239). Her response is similar to that of "many women who have not been able to get out of abusive situations for themselves, [but who] have done so at the point when their husbands began harming the children" (Fleming 25).

     Upon learning that Iago’s abuses have resulted in Desdemona’s murder, a fact that she questions four times, Emilia attacks those before whom she previously was powerless. As she is no stranger to pain, she declares that Othello "hast not half the pow’r to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt" (V.ii.162-63). She proclaims that she is no longer afraid of the sword, the phallic weapon with which men wield authority over their victims. Now that the destructive ties have been severed, she boldly and publicly denounces her husband as a villain. Despite his cruel epithets of "Filth" and "whore" and his efforts to hinder her physically and verbally, she will not be constrained. This resolve, combined with her threat that "Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home" (V.ii.196) verifies for the ensign that he has lost his hold over Emilia. Thus, he responds like many husbands whose wives plan to leave and threatens to "kill or maim her . . . should she dare to try to escape or expose him" (Davidson 39). He rapidly makes good this vow by stabbing Emilia, and she dies, "So speaking as I think" (V.ii.251), a triumph denied her while entwined in an abusive union.

     It is interesting to note that several critics, including Kent Cartwright and Martin Elliott, consider Emilia to be the audience’s surrogate onstage in the final scene as she speaks the truths the onlookers have realized throughout the play. Yet, curiously enough, she "die[s] alone, unremarked" (Cartwright 167). Perhaps this is Shakespeare’s method of establishing solidarity between the victors both on- and offstage. In Iago, the playwright has created an amalgam of all the physical, emotional, and psychological evils of this world. Yet, throughout the revelation of these sinister forces, the audience, like its proxy, has been forced to remain silent. Only when this substitute, and consequently the audience, is pressed to the shattering point by this malevolent tyranny is any deliverance possible. In defying these abusive influences, Emilia is able to free herself from their grasp. Her death in defense of the truth is a noble and liberating release. It defies intertextual comment because such statements would render Emilia’s victory an isolated incident, which it is not. The audience can look upon her body, centerstage throughout the remainder of the drama, and know that she confronted despotic brutality and has "come . . . to bliss as I speak true" (V.ii.247). This bliss, though it ends Emilia’s speech, does not end with her life. It lives with the audience in the awareness that even a lone voice, fortified by the truth, has the strength to triumph over evil.



Works Cited


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Russell, Mary Nomme. Confronting Abusive Beliefs: Group Treatment for Abusive Men. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995.

Walker, Lenore E. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Wayne, Valerie. "Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello." The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Valerie Wayne. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Roxanne Y. Schwab "Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: ‘Filth, thou liest’: The Spousal Abuse of Emilia in Othello". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Roxanne Y. Schwab