One thing Shakespeare has in common with comic book characters: at big moments of realization, a light bulb seems to go on over the person’s head. On the stage this takes place more subtly, light bulbs being singularly lacking in Shakespeare’s world. Nevertheless the moment is made immaculately clear through the actor’s capacity to demonstrate precisely what is happening in her head and body in that moment as she realizes that the world she believed in and thought she inhabited no longer exists. If we are in a tragedy, she recognizes that the old world never existed. With good actors onstage, it’s like watching an emotional earthquake.
The most powerful and heart-rending of these moments comes near the end of Othello, when Emilia, Desdemona’s friend and ally, realizes that her beloved husband Iago is the cause of all the misery and misfortune that is killing them all. Furthermore, she realizes that she has played an inadvertent part in the tragedy by following Iago’s request to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief. It has all been a plot by Iago to destroy Othello and this is finally revealed to everyone onstage, including Emilia. (We in the audience already know that, having been seduced into becoming Iago’s confidants early in the play.)
Emilia keeps repeating the words, “My husband?” as she makes an incomprehensibly swift journey from knowing absolutely that Iago, her dear husband, is honest and totally trustworthy, to realizing that in fact he is a quintessential villain. Each step on her journey is punctuated by the words, “My husband?” She says it in response to Othello’s pronouncements that her husband, “honest, honest Iago,” is the one who has convinced him of Desdemona’s adultery, and driven him to kill her. After each of Othello’s statements, she repeats the phrase, “My husband?” four times in all. Watching her come to full awareness is to watch first the emotional earthquake caused by such a revelation, and then to see a tsunami begin to build, as she shows heartbreak, plus guilt, plus awareness of betrayal, plus recognition of supreme cruelty on the part of someone she has trusted with her life. She finally bursts forth with the words, “Villainy, villainy, villainy!” knowing she has to persuade everyone of Desdemona’s innocence.
She cannot contain herself until she has made Othello realize fully that his accusations, indeed his murder, of Desdemona are based on lies fed by Iago, who stands onstage with her, threatening her life as she shouts the truth. Her final words come after Iago stabs her for speaking. So we have a triple realization happening at once: Emilia is living her own tumbling heartbreak; she is announcing the truth to Othello; he immediately goes through an explosive and desperate protestation of that truth, and then finally sees what deadly mistakes he has made. At the same time the attending visitors and soldiers, who have been called into action by her agonizing cries, are also realizing the truth of this concatenation of terrible events. All this dynamic action is driven by Emilia. It is a fiercely dramatic scene, and a glorious moment for an actor.
Every time I see Othello, I look to Emilia’s revelation as the moment in the play that will at least bring the fiery sword of truth to the web of lies and evil spun by her husband to entrap and destroy Othello. And each time, in retrospect, I am reminded of those times in life – most of them thankfully so much tamer than these portrayed onstage – those moments of revelation, realization, recognition that shake us so that they seem to shatter the world into pieces. When that world reassembles, it is no longer the same. Sometimes all we have left is the truth. And it has to be enough. Emilia dies for speaking the truth; for her it’s worth it. I do love her for that.