From her first introduction, Emilia from Shakespeare'sOthello is ridiculed and chided by her husband Iago “Sir, would she give you so much of her lips As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, You would have enough” (Iago, Act 2 Scene 1, Line 103-5)
This particular line is prophetic in that Emilia’s testimony at the end of the play, relating to how Cassio came by the handkerchief, leads directly to Iago’s downfall.
Emilia is perceptive and cynical maybe as a result of her relationship with Iago. She is the first to suggest that somebody is telling Othello untruths about Desdemona; “The Moor’s abused by some most villainous knave. Some base, notorious knave.” (Act 4 Scene 2, Line 143-5).
Unfortunately she does not identify her own husband as the perpetrator until it is too late. “You told a lie, an odious, damned lie” (Act 5 Scene 2, Line 187).
In order to please him, Emilia gives Iago Desdemona’s handkerchief, which leads to her best friend’s condemnation but this is not done out of spite but to garner a little praise or love from her husband; Iago, who rewards her with the line; “O good wench give it to me” (Act 3 scene 3, Line 319).
In a conversation with Desdemona, Emilia does not condemn a woman for having an affair:
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,v As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
(Act 5 Scene 1)
Emilia blames the man in the relationship for driving her to it. “But I do think it is their husband’s faults If wives do fall”. This speaks volumes for her relationship with Iago and does insinuate that she would not be averse to the idea of an affair; which corroborates the rumours about her and Othello, although she denies them.
Also her loyalty to Desdemona may belie this rumour too. An audience would not judge Emilia too harshly for her views knowing Iago’s true nature.
Emilia and Othello
Emilia judges jealous Othello’s behaviour harshly and warns Desdemona off him; “I would you had never seen him” (Act 4 Scene 2 Line 17). This demonstrates her loyalty and that she judges men based on her own experience.
Having said this, it may well have been better if Desdemona had never set eyes on Othello, given the outcome. Emilia even bravely challenges Othello when she discovers he has murdered Desdemona “O the more angel she, and you the blacker devil!” (Act 5 Scene 2, Line 140).
Emilia’s role in Othello is key, her part in taking the handkerchief leads to Othello falling for Iago’s lies more fully. She discovers Othello as Desdemona’s murderer and uncovers her husband’s plot which she exposes; “I will not charm my tongue. I am bound to speak” (Act 5 Scene 2, Line 191).
This leads to Iago’s eventual downfall and sadly her own murder as her husband kills her. She demonstrates her strength and honesty by exposing her husband and challenging Othello for his behaviour. She remains loyal to her mistress throughout and even asks to join her on her deathbed as she herself dies.
Unfortunately these two strong, perceptive loyal women are killed off but at the same time, they could be considered the heroes of the piece?