J.L. Austin through Emilia’s Speech in Othello: Powerfully Feminist or Just Ironic?

May 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

Emilia’s monologue in Othello is the closest to a feminist manifesto that Shakespeare has written, as well as revered as one of the most powerful speeches in the play. As the wife of the villain, Iago, her hidden bitterness boils over when she says that husbands are usually to blame when their wives cheat on them. In the film version of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker in 1995, the role of Emilia is played by a woman, which revives the power of her speech. While the film’s illocutionary force makes a larger impact, especially for a more modern audience, J.L Austin, author of How to Do Things with Words, would deem the speech infelicitous due to its inability to happen and the culture of the time.

In both the play and the film, Desdemona asks Emilia if there are women who abuse their husbands in such an obscene way by committing adultery. Emilia answers yes, for cruel husbands are to blame. She believes when husbands abuse their wives, both physically and emotionally, women will stray. Then, Emilia breaks the fourth wall: “Let husbands know/Their wives have sense like them” (act 4, scene 3, lines 104-105). The first part of the utterance is performative utterance because it conveys no information, and performs the action of allowing husbands to know their wives have senses and feelings as well. The utterance does not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything, and is not true or false. It fits the constraints of J.L Austin’s definition of performative utterances in How To Do Things With Words: “The uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just,’ saying something” (Austin, 5). Emilia is not ‘just saying’ these lines; she has the serious intent of retaliating against women’s oppression in marriage. Contrastingly, the second part can be considered constative, because it states the information that women have senses like their husbands. Though Austin blurs the lines between constative and performative because all constatives do something too. In this case, the constative conveys the recognition of justice for women.

Austin continues: “I mean that actions in general (not all) are liable, for example, to be done under duress, or by accident, or owing to this or that variety of mistake, say, or otherwise unintentionally” (21). Austin wants to keep illocutionary effects tied to the speaker’s intention, and does not want to consider an unintentional speech, so illocutionary force refers to what the speaker intends to do in saying something. In her speech, Emilia intends to inform the audience, specifically men/husbands, that women deserve respect because they share the same desires and affections.

Despite her serious intent and strong illocutionary force, Emilia’s monologue is overall infelicitous. Unfortunately, the utterance would not fit into Austin’s six points, since one is that the utterance must be real, not on stage or fiction. Whether it can be applied to ‘true/false’ criteria of performatives is uncertain because the implication of belief may not be sincere. She knew Iago had malevolent intentions yet remained loyal by giving him the handkerchief, which would make the statement false. On the other hand, she could be just another victim of abuse like Desdemona, which would make the statement true. What makes Emilia’s speech truly infelicitous is what Austin defines as a misapplication, stating that “there is a misinvocation of a procedure – either because there is, speaking vaguely, no such procedure, or because the procedure in question cannot be made to apply in the way attempted. Among them, we may reasonably christen the second sort – where the procedure does exist all right but can’t be applied as purported – misapplications” (17). Emilia’s procedure lies not so much in the illocutionary force, but the perlocutionary effect of having the effect on the audience, speaking to them and influencing them. Yet when examining the cultural and historical context of the play, Emilia’s monologue is ironic because her role would be played by a man, thus destroying the feminist ideals. In Austin’s terms, the procedure could not be applied as purported.

Viewed in modern times with Parker’s film version, Emilia’s speech warrants an impactful illocutionary force by calling out the double standard of gender when played by a female actor. However, the infelicitous misapplication lies in the actual cultural and historical context of the play, and will never happen. Both Iago and Othello are blind to their wives’ true feelings and intentions. With that knowledge, her monologue is ultimately flawed.

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