Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia in Othello by Shakespeare.

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.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

And:

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team