Emilia is a somewhat puzzling character in Othello since she does not have soliloquies or asides. Unlike Lago, who reveals himself in detailed monologues, what goes on in her mind is left up to the reader’s imagination. Despite limited knowledge of Emilia’s intent, the play implies that her intentions were innocuous even though they lead to harmful consequences.
As Iago’s wife – an already submissive role in Shakespeare’s time – and Desdemona’s attendant, she is not a major character, although she helps lead Desdemona to her demise and turn Othello against Desdemona through her unwillingness to speak up about the handkerchief that she stole.
This thesis, by textual analysis, will demonstrate that Emilia’s intentions were not malicious. Though she is a relatively minor character, her actions and words are central to the unfolding of the tragedy in the end. Because of this role that she plays, the question of her intentions – whether or not she meant for the tragic turn of events to happen initially – is worth exploring.
Upon initial reading of Othello, one may write off Emilia’s intentions as malicious. After all, she steals Desdemona’s handkerchief and pretends not to know what happened to it. She knows that Desdemona trusts her as a friend, yet she still abuses that trust in deceiving her. At the end of the play, she finally does come out with the truth, but then one may wonder if her conscience got the best of her or if she was simply misguided in her loyalty. She is simply torn between her allegiance to Iago and Desdemona because their interests conflict one another. Because of this, her errors in judgment rather than ill intentions lead to Desdemona’s downfall.
After a more critical and thorough reading of Othello, one will likely reach the conclusion that Emilia did not mean any ill will toward Desdemona. After all, Emilia lashes out against those who speak ill of Desdemona, and she vehemently protects Desdemona’s integrity more and more as the play progresses.
A few alternative actions would have more clearly highlighted Emilia’s innocent intentions. These possible alternatives could have exposed Iago sooner and spared Desdemona’s life. Although the play could have followed a different turn of events and the characters could have been spared fatal consequences, the actions that Emilia does decide to take help to establish Shakespeare’s work as a true tragedy.
Regardless of her intentions, Emilia is a dynamic character in the fact that she changes in the play from a passive character to a stronger character. She is first perceived as meek. Iago says that she keeps many thoughts to herself: “She puts her tongue a little in her heart,” meaning that many of her most critical thoughts remain unsaid (2.1.110). Even Desdemona has to prod her to speak. This silence throughout much of the play may be one cause of her snapping at the end. Initially she sets out to please Iago without question, then she speaks against him when she realizes the truth about him.
The reader first suspects her intentions when she steals Desdemona’s handkerchief. At first she seems that her intentions lie in satisfying Iago, regardless of the fact that it is at Desdemona’s expense. Here her actions are not quite malicious because although she realizes the handkerchief is important to Desdemona, she fails to see what trouble could ensue. After all, while important to Desdemona, it is only a material possession. She doesn’t foresee Iago’s plan and the implications that the handkerchief will soon hold when Othello finds it with Cassio. Her intentions further become questionable when she acts oblivious about the handkerchief’s whereabouts.
Emilia’s silence further jeopardizes her integrity. Even when Desdemona says she would rather lose a purse full of gold coins than the handkerchief, Emilia remains quiet. Although Emilia knows the sentimental value of the handkerchief – she mentions that it was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona – she chooses Iago’s interest over Desdemona’s. It is not until she presents the handkerchief to Iago that she becomes suspicious of his intentions when she questions his insistence upon his need for it.
One possible alternative to stealing the handkerchief could have been Emilia swearing Desdemona to secrecy with the fact that Iago had persistently asked for her to take it. Their intimate conversation of faithfulness to their husbands in Act V reveals that they trust one another, and had Emilia kept Desdemona’s best interest in mind at the time, she would have either spoken up to Desdemona or maintained silence with Iago.
Iago’s refusal to tell her the importance of the handkerchief gives her second thoughts about having stolen it. She then exhibits compassion and remorse toward Desdemona because she asks to return it, lest Desdemona “run mad when she lack it” (3.3.320). Her suspicions show that she is reluctant to betray Desdemona – at least without legitimate reason.
Rather than deceive Desdemona, she could have simply told Iago that she was unable to find the handkerchief. After all, she said that she would be unfaithful to Iago for all the world, so had she thought before she stole it, she likely would have though nothing of such a minor deception to him.
In the next act, Emilia begins to defend Desdemona when Othello interrogates her. She defends Desdemona’s integrity by assuring Othello that Desdemona and Cassio never acted in a suspicious manner together. Emilia emphasizes that she saw no harm and heard every syllable exchanged between the Desdemona and Cassio (4.2.5-6).
“I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest,
Lay down my soul at stake. If you think other,
Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.If any wretch ha’ put this in your head,
Let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse,
For if she be not honest, chaste, and true,
There’s no man happy; the purest of their wives
Is foul as slander.”
Emilia urges Iago to remove any suspicion of her adultery for it would only trouble his heart. She is unwittingly speaking of Iago when she mentions the “wretch” that planted the thought in Othello’s mind (4.2.16). She refers to Desdemona as a standard for purity and says that if she is not, then no woman is. Later in the scene, she begins to weep when she mentions what Othello said of Desdemona:
“Alas, Iago, my lord hath so bewhored her,
Thrown such despite and heavy terms upon her,
That true hearts cannot bear it.”
Now she is unwittingly speaking of Iago, to Iago when she says that “A halter pardon him, and hell gnaw his bones!” (4.2.140). Her sympathy lies with Desdemona rather than the person that is successfully slandering her name and jeopardizing her relationship with Othello.
Her most questionable deed is perhaps seen in her private conversation with Desdemona regarding adultery. She tells Desdemona that she would be unfaithful to Iago “for all the whole world.” (5.1.73) However, she perceives it as more of breaking a double standard than betrayal, according to the Norton introduction to Othello (Norton 2095). She says that women have the same desires as men and that weakness causes men to be unfaithful.
Some readers may perceive her words as an indication that since she could deceive her husband, she could just as easily do so with Desdemona. However, her defense of Desdemona earlier on proves that she will sooner uphold Desdemona’s integrity than betray her. Overall, she establishes herself as Desdemona’s confidante, and her mention of deception should not be construed as aimed toward Desdemona.
When Othello tells her that Iago informed him of Desdemona’s alleged affair with Cassio, Emilia reacts in disbelief. She repeats, “My husband?” in shock as well as affirmation of her suspicions (5.2.153, 157). She instantly turns against Iago, guilt-ridden and betrayed.
When she connects the parts of the puzzle that Iago tried to keep undeciphered, she unravels the rest of the story before she dies, always standing for Desdemona. Iago realizes that he can no longer tame her tongue at this point because she says she will speak as “liberal as the north” (5.2.226). Emilia’s intentions are also present in her anger toward Othello. She expresses her outrage over Desdemona’s murder, referring to him as a “cruel Moor” (5.2.256).
At the end she also defends Desdemona against Iago. When she learns of his scheme, she says, “may his pernicious soul rot half a grain a day. He lies to th’ heart. She was too fond of her most filthy bargain” (5.2.163-65). She becomes angry with herself that her silence has come down to Desdemona’s murder and revealed Iago’s plan against Othello.
Othello is not the only person that Emilia lashes out against in defense of Desdemona’s innocence. She finally speaks out against Iago, a complete change from her initial passivity and allegiance to him. She admits to Othello that she stole the handkerchief when Desdemona dropped it because Iago had some unknown use for it. Iago then silences her by killing her, and she asks that she lay by Desdemona’s side.
Even after Desdemona’s death, Emilia defends her against Othello and Iago. She tells him that he killed “the sweetest innocent that e’er did lift up eye (5.2.206-207).” As she dies, she sings “Willow,” which Desdemona had sung for her earlier and says,
“Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor.
So come my soul to bliss as I speak true.
So speaking as I think, alas, I die.”
The last line reflects the irony brought about in her failure to speak up earlier in the play. Had she spoken up, this tragic turn of events may have been prevented. Instead, her silence brought Desdemona and eventually herself to death.
Overall, Emilia’s intentions were not ill. She wanted to please Iago and realized too late the consequences that her actions would bring. A negation follows each of Emilia’s suspicious actions to redeem her integrity. Though a minor character, she is dynamic in the sense that her words and actions play a central role in the other characters’ fates. Her actions throughout the play overall portray her not as a deceptive wife and friend, but as a strong-willed woman with misguided loyalty as her tragic flaw.
Source: Greenblatt, Stephen; Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus. The Norton Shakespeare. New York, London. 1997.