Excerpt from I, IAGO
One of the most intriguing elements of Iago’s character in Othello is his relationship with Emilia, his wife. In envisioning his life before the play begins, I had the delicious opportunity to imagine how they met. That’s what you will find in the excerpt below – but if you’re a Bardophile, you’ll find far more than that. This scene steals shamelessly from several of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, especially Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew.
Near us on the balcony was a small flurry of Venetian dandies, also temporarily bald-faced. Beneath their long black robes, their doublets and breeches were as outlandishly slashed up as Roderigo’s, the taffeta and linen as outlandishly puffed out through the slashes. Trying to remember how to behave in polite company, I attempted to take an interest in their conversation. This was a chorus of complaint about a young lady at the party. Roderigo gestured me over to the group, whose members he knew, and was beamingly proud to introduce his soldier-friend.
The first statement that caught my ears was one of furious indignity: “She’ll never get a husband with that tongue of hers.”
“I told her that,” complained another. “She said that was fine with her – if she never has a husband, she will never be cheated on.”
Several laughed; a third man added: “She told me she prefers the company of bachelors, not wooers, because with bachelors she can be as comfortable as she is with all her friends.”
I smiled to myself. It was obvious what was happening here: the lady in question was a high-class prostitute, trying to find a man to take her as a mistress, and these young dolts had not yet figured it out.
“She told me,” said a fourth dejectedly, “that men are made of clay and she was not of a mind to be lorded over by a clod of dirt.”
“She told me,” said a fifth, “that since we’re both descended from Adam and Eve, we must be relatives, and didn’t I think it sinful to proposition my own cousin?”
I laughed at that. I did not have the money to support a mistress, but this harlot’s banter would be more entertaining than another hour like the one I’d just spent. I wanted to meet her.
“And what is it about this young lady that so inflames you all to want to wed her?” I asked.
They all shrugged a foppish Venetian-style shrug.
“We’re practicing our wooing,” one said, as if it should be obvious. “On all the young ladies here. We practice on them, they practice on us. It’s delightful, harmless and useful – but this one is so contrary. It’s well-known she is a pretty piece of flesh. Why does she even show up at a place known to be a site for flirtation, when she will not flirt?”
“What you have just described sounds exactly like flirtation to me,” I said knowingly.
They gave me looks of disapproving disbelief. “Well, she’s right over there. Have at her!” the first complainer suggested. He pointed. I looked.
A young woman was wearing a black velvet Moretta mask, with a pile of auburn hair coiled on her head. She glanced briefly toward our little group as she exited from the hall. Then she most pointedly took no further interest in us. She crossed past us to the far side of the balcony for air. The men all snickered and energetically gestured me in her direction.
If you placed me in a room with a Venetian lady my own age and told me to be gallant toward her, I doubt I could do it for a thousand ducats. I’d have no idea what would be considered rude, or why; what would be considered humorous, and why. But from that first week in the Arsenal, I knew that I could banter with a bawd. I decided I would banter with this one, in their hearing, and make her laugh not at me but with me. With much hand-shaking and false merriment and several bets placed, I received useless information from them – her name, her father’s name, her father’s family’s name, her father’s family’s business, all of which I was sure was just a front, to disguise the fact that she was a courtesan.
I retied my mask and brushed imaginary dust from off my soldier’s jerkin, and shared a friendly obscene gesture with the lads, which brought cackles of approval. Then, without the slightest subtlety, walked energetically right toward her.
She stood serene at the far corner of the balcony, in a funnel-sleeved bodice and red woolen skirt. She wore no pearls nor strands of jewels, nor any of the other fineries outlawed by the state’s sumptuary laws and therefore worn only by the wealthy. There was an elegant simplicity in her dress compared to every other woman at this ball. That was unusual for a prostitute. So was the absence of chopines, those absurd cork-soled shoes that raise a woman a foot above her natural height.
She heard my approach, of course, and watched me. We had a chance to appraise each other fully from behind our masks, for as long as it took me to take a dozen strides. I could not see her face, and even in moonlight her silhouette was muted, but she had a most impressive shape. Most women present themselves either for the advantage of their curves, or the advantage of their slimness. She had both, and showed off both, yet her gown revealed very little flesh.
She put her hands on her hips as I stopped beside her; the tilt of her head suggested she was waiting for me to start bantering.
“Good evening, Emilia,” I said. “That’s your name, I hear. They spent so much time complaining about your behavior that they only thought to mention your name but the once or twice.”
“They?” she replied in an arch voice. “Do they have names of their own?”
“I think they would prefer me not to tell you their names,” I chuckled.
“Then they’re cowards,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“Well of course,” I agreed. “That’s why they don’t want you to know who they are. I myself am not a coward, and therefore, if I were to defame you, I would not mind if you knew my name.”
After the slightest appraising pause, she asked, “What is your name?”
“I don’t need to tell you that, since I’m not defaming you.”
“Yet,” she amended.
“Oh, I think I can refrain indefinitely. The other fellows over there, who do not want me to name them – they’ve already complained about you so thoroughly, I cannot imagine there’d be any new complaints to register.”
She removed her hands from her hips and now crossed her arms over her chest. These were not the gestures of a high-born lady, and neither were they the manners of a prostitute on the prowl for a gentleman. She had, even in these simple movements, a natural grace, but she moved without any pretensions of femininity. “You really will not tell me the names of the men who defame me?” she asked.
“Pardon me, but no, my lady.”
“Then will you tell me, at least, who you are?”
“Not at the moment, my lady,” I said. I finally grasped an oddity about her: she was speaking without holding her mask. The moretta mask – commonly worn by women, as it allows a peak at the outline of their face – is usually held in place by a small button clasped between the wearer’s teeth. This allows a lady both hands free for dancing, and yet does not muss up her coiffure and cap with a tied ribbon. Which means that when a moretta-masked lady actually speaks, she must hold her mask up with one hand. Or ideally, she simply must not speak.
This young woman, however, had tied her moretta with a velvet ribbon that was close in color to her hair, and then arranged her tresses to cascade over it. Like myself, she wore nothing on her head at all.
We had been standing in silence as I noticed all this.
“Are you planning to flirt with me, sir?” she asked, polite but matter-of-fact. “If you intend to, please begin, so we may get it over with.”
“I hear you are not interested in wooers.”
“I’m not interested in fools,” she corrected pleasantly.
“Then what are you doing at this party?” I asked.
“Possibly the same thing you are,” she replied. “Wishing I had something more fulfilling to do.”
“You might try a brothel,” I said in a meaningful tone. “The men who visit there know what fulfillment they desire, and have well-lined pockets to fulfill your desires in return.”
She laughed at this, but not the way I had wanted her to. “I have no experience in the matter, sir. Tell me, please: would my desire for intelligent conversation somehow be fulfilled by forfeiting my virginity? And if so, how, exactly?”
What an ass I was. “You’re not a prostitute,” I said, mortified.
Now she laughed the charmed laugh that I’d hoped to hear. “That is by far the most original line anyone has used to woo me,” she said, with delight in her voice. “That almost makes me want to dance with you.”
I had not seen the woman’s face, and truly I did not know who she was beyond her name, but I was smitten with Emilia.