Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia in Othello.

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Desdemona is Othello's wife, a well-educated and demure noblewoman. Emilia is, by contrast, a middle-class woman who has not received as much education. She is also very outspoken. Both women are devoted to their husbands, almost to a fault, but are trapped in marriages that are not as loving as they once hoped. They are oppressed under the social constraints for women present in their time.

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Desdemona, Othello's wife, and Emilia, Iago's wife, are the two main female characters of the play. There are several differences between the two. However there are also some similarities which ultimately showcase how women were treated and how they were expected to behave in the era in which they lived in. Shakespeare describes Desdemona as loyal, kind and gentle. She is romantic, assertive and somewhat naive, and hasn’t had much experience with love or life. As a noblewoman, she is educated and opinionated. She tends to keep quiet the majority of the time, especially after her marriage with Othello.

Emilia, on the other hand, is quite outspoken and has much more experience in love and life. She is deeply loyal to her husband. However, she will not hesitate to betray him or cheat on him under the right circumstances. She comes from a middle-class family and she is not as educated or as well-spoken as Desdemona. She makes up for that by being less naïve and inexperienced than Desdemona.

Despite their obvious differences, Desdemona and Emilia share some similarities. For instance, both women are bold and courageous. Desdemona is not afraid to stand against her father, and Emilia is not afraid to speak against her husband. They are both honest and understanding women. Also, they are both, for better or worse, supportive of their husbands. Finally, both Emilia and Desdemona are oppressed by the social norms, rules, and expectations for their behavior as women.

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Emilia and Desdemona are deliberate foils to each other in this play. This is indicated by Shakespeare's language, which posits Desdemona as symbolically "fair" and Emilia as "dark," suggesting that Desdemona is naive and pure, while Emilia is more worldly. Emilia is very fond of Desdemona, beyond what we might expect of a servant, and tries to share some of her knowledge of the world with her mistress, particularly in relation to how men treat women and what this might mean for Desdemona. Desdemona is upper class, while Emilia is working class, suggesting that Desdemona has always been sheltered and is therefore less able to perceive the world as it really is.

Desdemona dismisses Emilia's suggestions that all men are alike and that they see women as "food" to be consumed, rather than as whole people, but this does, of course, foreshadow what will happen to Desdemona in the play. Desdemona rejects the idea that Othello would ever hurt or disregard her, but Emilia has been married much longer, and while she and Iago do speak to each other, it is not very lovingly. She has also, we might infer, seen how Iago's attention has wavered from her over the course of their marriage. At the end of the play, it is Emilia who sees what is happening—what her own husband has done—and tries to save Desdemona from her demise. As a result of this bravery, she is killed in defense of her mistress.

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In Othello, there are three women: Desdemona (upper class), Emilia (middle class), and Bianca (lower class).  They also be categorized by their level of speech: Desdemona goes from being unquiet to quiet, while Emilia goes from being quiet to unquiet.  (Bianca remains relatively quiet the entire play).  Desdemona is a hero in Act I, but Emilia is the hero of Act V and overall.

As the daughter of a Senator, Desdemona enjoys great freedom of speech, especially in Act I.  She advocates for herself in front of the Duke; she even openly rebels in front of her father.  In Act I, Desdemona is a vixen, an unquiet, very modern woman.

But, after her marriage to Othello and move to Cyprus, Desdemona becomes an unquiet victim of male dominance.  Desdemona seems like two different characters: why would the outspoken, rebellious Desdemona of Act I suddenly become silent, willingly letting Othello strangle her in Act V?

Emilia moves just the other way.  Sure, Iago complains that she won't shut up, Emilia is rather quiet when we meet her in Act II.  In her private conversations with Desdemona, however, we see that Emilia is the modern woman that Desdemona was in Act I.  Emilia says that men exploit women: men are "stomachs, and we are but food."  Finally, after Desdemona's murder, Emilia becomes the unquiet woman, openly disobeying her husband when his reputation and life are on the line: Iago says, "Get you home."   Emilia replies, "I will not!"

After Iago stabs her, Emilia continues her unquietness:

O thou dull Moor! that handkerchief thou speak'st of
I found by fortune and did give my husband;
For often, with a solemn earnestness,
More than indeed belong'd to such a trifle,
He begg'd of me to steal it.


By heaven, I do not, I do not, gentlemen.
O murderous coxcomb! what should such a fool
Do with so good a woman?

In fact, Emilia uses her dying words to not only expose her husband and Othello  (and men in general), but she uses them to defend the murdered Desdemona.  Contrast that with Othello's last monologue, in which he speaks only of his own reputation, and we see that Emilia is the true hero of the play.

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In Othello, Desdemona and Emilia are similar in their honor to their husbands, yet they are strikingly different because their motivation comes from different areas.  Both Desdemona and Emilia show honor and respect to their husbands Othello and Iago--the two women each respond to her husband's bidding.  This is one of the factors that allows Iago to implement his scheme against Othello--Emilia takes the handkerchief without question.  Yet the two women are in very different relationships, and this causes them to have different motivating factors.  Desdemona and Othello have a relationship that is based on true love, and the two want to see each other happy.  This motivates Desdemona to comply with Othello.  But Emilia and Iago appear to have a relationship based on necessity--Iago does not speak kindly to Emilia nor does he show her any tenderness.  Emilia is hardened, so she does not consider that her actions may have dire consequences when she takes the handkerchief.  She is jealous of the relationship that Desdemona has, so in this case she does as Iago asks.

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Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia Othello.

Desdemona is far from being the quiet, obedient, even submissive daughter and wife as she's often described.

Desdemona has no fear of disappointing her father, Brabantio, or going against familial and societal conventions and expectations by marrying Othello.

Desdemona loves Othello unreservedly. In her first appearance in the play, in act 1, scene 3, she has no fear of speaking up to her father, the Duke, and the council of Senators in defense of Othello and her marriage to him. Desdemona is polite and respectful to her father and the council, but she's also clearly determined to remain with Othello.

In act 2, scene 1, she plays words with Iago like a soldier. In act 3, scene 3, she's not at all hesitant to speak to Othello on Cassio's behalf, and even to risk Othello's displeasure by insisting on arranging a time that Othello will meet with Cassio.

In act 4, scene 1, when Othello strikes her in a jealous rage, she doesn't cower in front of Othello and the others in the scene, but firmly asserts "I have not deserved this" (4.1.256).

In act 4, scene 2, she seems submissive, but she's actually confused and dismayed by Othello's behavior, and she does her best to speak up for herself.

DESDEMONA. Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?
I understand a fury in your words,
But not the words.

OTHELLO. Why, what art thou?

DESDEMONA. Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife....

OTHELLO: Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.

DESDEMONA. To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?

OTHELLO. Impudent strumpet!

DESDEMONA. By heaven, you do me wrong.

OTHELLO. Are not you a strumpet?

DESDEMONA. No, as I am a Christian.
If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none (4.2.35–39, 45–46, 89–95).

In act 5, scene 2, Desdemona is clearly fearing for her life, but she nevertheless defends herself to Othello.

DESDEMONA. ...I never did
Offend you in my life; never loved Cassio
But with such general warranty of heaven
As I might love. I never gave him token (5.2.68–71).

With her dying words she proclaims her innocence, but also relieves Othello of the responsibility for her death.

DESDEMONA. A guiltless death I die.

EMILIA. O, who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA. Nobody; I myself. Farewell;
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell! (5.2.146–149)

Desdemona is saying either that she killed herself, or that she's responsible for her own death, although she still doesn't understand the reason for Othello's jealous rage.

Her final words convey kindness and love.

Emilia is complicit in Iago's schemes, even if unknowingly—which is a matter for another discussion. Emelia might have loved her husband in the past, and might love him now, but the emotion governing her actions is fear of Iago, although she seems to believe that she voluntarily acquiesces to his wants and needs.

EMILIA. I am glad I have found this napkin [Desdemona's handkerchief from Othello]:
This was her first remembrance from the Moor:
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Woo'd me to steal it; but she so loves the token,
For he conjured her she should ever keep it,
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I'll have the work ta'en out,
And give't Iago. What he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to please his fantasy (3.3.323–332).

In act 4, scene 3, Desdemona finds it hard to believe that any woman would be unfaithful to her husband. Emilia seems to justify infidelity, and also rationalizes what she does on Iago's behalf.

DESDEMONA. ...Dost thou in conscience think—tell me, Emilia—That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?

EMILIA. There be some such, no question....

DESDEMONA. I do not think there is any such woman.

EMILIA: ...Yes, a dozen, and as many to the vantage as would
store the world they played for.
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall; ... 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 (4.3.63–67, 88–108).

If Emelia has, in fact, been unfaithful to Iago with Othello, as Iago suspects (1.3.397–400), this might be reason enough to keep Iago happy, and be complicit in his schemes.

Throughout the play, Emelia has no illusions about who and what Iago is. She tries to redeem herself at the end of the play when she realizes that Desdemona is dead because she stole the handkerchief from her—which she's already tried to excuse as simply indulging her husband's whim.

Iago stabs Emilia when she tells Othello the truth about the handkerchief and Iago's plot. Emilia believes that by confessing her unwitting participation in the plot that she's relieved of the responsibility for her part in Desdemona's death.

EMELIA. ...Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor;
So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true;
So speaking as I think, I die, I die (5.2.292–294).

Unfortunately, Emilia's confession comes too late for Desdemona and for herself, and it hardly suffices to exonerate Emelia from her complicity in Iago's plot to destroy Othello and Desdemona.

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Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia Othello.

Desdemona is introduced as a strong character who goes after what she wants. She has eloped with Othello, going against social norms and her father's wishes. She articulates her love for Othello in front of the Duke, as well as expresses that she wishes to follow her new husband to Cyprus.

That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honor and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him.

Desdemona is loyal to Othello. She has a high view of him.

my noble Moor
Is true of mind and made of no such baseness
As jealous creatures are, it were enough
To put him to ill thinking.

Even after he slaps her and argues with her, she still stays loyal and does not leave him. Her loyalty and love to him lead to her downfall—if she had not followed him to Cypress, she would not have gotten tangled in Iago's plot.

Similarly, we can say Emilia's desire to please her husband leads to her downfall. Emilia is more experienced, and therefore more bitter than Desdemona. She does not share Desdemona's dreamy, romantic views. Desdemona doesn't understand how wives could cheat on their husbands, while Emilia suggests it is the husband's fault.

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...

However, she still aims to please Iago.

I nothing but to please his fantasy.

She gives him Desdemona's handkerchief, hoping he will show her some affection. Emilia does not tell Desdemona, letting Desdemona search and despair over the lost handkerchief. This lie adds to the problem, like how Desdemona's lie to Othello about the handkerchief makes him more suspicious.

Emilia tells all at the end, turning against her husband. But it is too late. She shows how strong she is, but her earlier loyalty has still hurt her.

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Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia Othello.

Desdemona and Emilia share several commonalities. Both end up in abusive marriages. Both are killed by their husbands. And neither one suspects (Emilia, at least, not until too late) what Iago is up to.

Both women also show themselves to be strong characters: Desdemona reveals this when she follows her heart and bucks social expectation by marrying an older black men she has fallen in love with. Emilia shows her mettle when she tells the truth at the end of the play about Iago, revealing his duplicity.

Desdemona, however, is far less cynical than Emilia, who is older and more experienced in the world. Desdemona maintains a sweetness and purity throughout the play, even as her husband is killing her. Emilia, on the other hand, delivers what is almost a jaded feminist manifesto when she argues that men, because of their own infidelities, are to blame if their wives cheat, stating that "The ills we do, their ills instruct us so." It is hard to imagine the virtuous Desdemona justifying female infidelity on the basis of men being unfaithful. She would be more likely to demand fidelity across the board: in fact, she wonders to Emilia if women can be unfaithful.

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Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia Othello.

The contrast between Desdemona and Emilia is an interesting one. Desdemona is the paragon of womanly virtue; she is quiet, submissive, and innocent to the point of naïveté. Desdemona, even to the very end when her husband is literally murdering her, remains loyal and in love. Her optimism and unfailing trust in her marriage shows how pure yet ignorant she is. On the other hand, Emilia is extremely strong-willed and outspoken. She is cynical about human nature and love, often making practical and pessimistic remarks about infidelity in marriage. Desdemona is so innocent that she is hardly able to believe that infidelity could even happen, a lack of understanding that contributes to her tragic end. Emilia speaks uncommonly about men and women having the same amount of lust and weakness, as well as about her eye-for-and-eye viewpoint of unfaithfulness in marriage.

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