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Fight Choreography in Othello: Killing Emilia

It is a basic rule of design in a production that all departments work together to tell a story. This story is not just a story, but rather the story of the production being done. Small choices can have great affect, and each element enhances the other. Subtle changes can unify and augment what designers and directors want the audience to see. It is no different with fight choreography. Each fight sequence has its own story that has the potential to alter audience perspective. Stage directions such as those Shakespeare provides are vague, usually saying, “they fight” or “[character] kills [character]” or “[character] stabs [character]” or “[character] dies”. There is ample room for interpretation. Thus, how a fight plays out becomes a powerful tool in affecting audiences. Fight choreography advances the story and reveals truths about characters that informs audience perspective both retrospectively and moving forward.

In Act 5, Scene 2 of Othello Shakespeare provides the stage directions, “The Moor runs at Iago but is disarmed. Iago kills his wife.”

These are generally vague directions; however, it is important to analyze what Shakespeare does give in these directions. Iago is the only character mentioned by name. Othello is referred to as “the Moor,” a reference used before but more in keeping with the unknown version of himself that exists at the end of the play. Similarly, Emilia is referred to as Iago’s wife, despite her pivotal role in the scene. It highlights the nature of her relationship to the only named character, Iago, and the inexcusable cause of her death. The passive voice used in “but is disarmed” is a purposeful ambiguity that welcomes interpretation of this fight moment. This information can be used or ignored as it fits the production, so long as the end result is the same.

There are other factors to take into consideration when choreographing a fight, as well. What period the play takes place in will help inform what kind of weapons should be used, which will therefore inform the best style(s) of fighting to employ. The setting may call for swords or daggers, or it may call for guns; it depends on the time and place. Knowing what movements will be possible in the costumes and the footwear characters are wearing is also important to keep in mind for both respect to the costume and if parts of it could be safely incorporated in the fight, such as having somewhere to conceal a weapon or being able to use a jacket, cape, belt, etc. to one’s advantage. The physical set being used and the capabilities of the venue may also provide potential opportunities for climbing, running, using levels, using aisles in the audience, and so on. It is necessary to know what is available to work with in order to strategize what to produce.

In the scene in which the above stage directions appear Emilia, Othello, Montano, Gratiano, and Iago are all present, in addition to the dead Desdemona. Emilia, after raising the alarm of murder (5.2.202-203), continues in her boldness and condemns her husband for his schemes that led to Othello’s corruption and Desdemona’s death. It is then that this fight occurs. The advantage to vague stage directions for fighting is the room it leaves for creativity. Will the fight be short, not more than a scuffle? Will it be a dramatic back and forth of evenly matched competitors? Is there some sort of devious trickery or dishonorable move used? Is it an easy victory?

One interpretation of this fight in 5.2 is that as Othello moves to attack Iago the others intercept him and disarm him before he can reach Iago. Another interpretation is that Othello and Iago exchange a few blows before either Iago or the others (Montana and Gratiano) disarm him. In what would be an audacious interpretation Emilia disarms Othello as he moves to attack Iago. This action creates its own story and seeming trust in institutional justice since Emilia has just condemned her husband and refused to obey him in favor of the truth. There is also a situation in which Montano and Gratiano fight with Othello before successfully disarming him, or perhaps another in which either Montano or Gratiano steps in to defend Iago, preserving his safety for state judgment, while the other fights with Othello and disarms him. There is also room for layers of character nuance: perhaps Montano or Gratiano has a soft spot or a dislike of Othello that affects how they fight, or maybe one is more of a friend to Iago and so relaxes his guard around him. Each of these scenarios tells a slightly different story that reveals something about each character, as well as the world they inhabit. Which scenario—or another that is not listed here—gets used depends entirely on the type of story the director wants to tell. Regardless of which is chosen, the moment will make audiences reconsider how they viewed the characters involved in the fight up until this moment, and changes how they view them moving forward. This is only the first part of the fight.

While the others are distracted Iago has the opportunity to kill his wife. Since, according to a previous direction, Iago has his sword drawn, it is reasonable that he uses it to stab his wife; however, it is also an option that he draws a dagger and stabs his wife with it, or that he slits her throat as he moves to leave since he immediately exits (5.2 stage directions). Iago’s kill strike may be premeditated, but it is possible that the journey there is not and that he improvises. In this case it is also possible that he uses his wife as a hostage shield as he moves toward the exit, killing her only as he leaves. Even if Iago is involved in the sequences leading up to Othello being disarmed these are still reasonable actions. Another possibility is that Iago only kills his wife because she blocks his exit. Emilia is in the moments leading up to the fight defying him, so it is not beyond reason that she would try to do so. Whether the director and fight choreographer make Emilia’s death a disconnected event of necessity or a dramatic rupture of a marital relationship depends again on the story they want to tell the audience.

In a modern production a couple years ago using guns for this scene greatly altered the tension and movements involved in this moment. The threat of using a gun was just as powerful as actually using it, and it became a question of what would happen if someone tried to disarm with hand-to-hand combat or forced someone to give up their weapon. Many of the previously stated scenarios above still work with modern weaponry, but introducing modern weapons affects the weight of each movement of combat differently since they require different movements. The use of a gun made it particularly heartbreaking to watch Iago kill Emilia as he made eye contact with her from across the stage and shot her.

Fight choreography is not only an exciting speculative moment on stage, but also an effective storytelling device.

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