How do Emilia and Desdemona compare as wives to their respective husbands in Othello?
I am doing a seminar on this topic and was wanting to learn about other people's interpretations of Emilia and Desdemona.
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Emilia and Desdemona are linked in the common bond of supporting their husbands in greatness, but they have differing moral standpoints by which they do this.
Desdemona blindly obeys, supports and defends her husband. She moves from the care and protection of her father, Brabantio, to the arms of her valiant husband Othello. She is brave in her statement to the Senate to defend her part in the elopement, but then acquiesces in all of her husband's wild and abusive accusations. Desdemona searches herself for weakness rather than exploring the changed behaviour of her once-loving husband. She protects and defends him to the end, even condemning herself to Hell on her deathbed by lying about Othello's involvement in her death. When Emilia asks "O who has done this deed?" Desdemona's response is "Nobody: I myself." She dies upon the words "Commend me to my kind lord: o farewell!" Dying, that is, loyal to the man who took her life.
Emilia is a more pragmatic and practically minded woman - particularly for the time in which the play was conceived. Iago is a crude and dislikeable man (at best). Emilia is believed by Iago to have been unfaithful and hints that she may have a justification for his imaginings. In a discussion on infidelity with Desdemona, Emilia says,
I would not do such a thing for a joint ring, nor for measures of lawn , nor for a gown, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibitions. But for all the whole world...who would not make her husband a cuckold? I should venture purgatory for it.
Her statement could be seen as a justification for adultery, and Emilia does go on to implicate men's behaviour as the cause of infidelity in their wives. She alludes to women having the same wants, needs and desires in relationships as men. However, it appears that she is more concerned with being "upwardly mobile" and assisting her husband to succeed politically in the same way Lady Macbeth does with Macbeth.
As Othello is a tragedy, both women are doomed in their relationships and caught in the web of emotions wrought by their husbands. Emilia too dies at the hands of her husband. Her last loyalty is to her mistress, "Ay, ay! O, lay me by my mistress’ side."
The women both see the potential for power that their husband's hold, but Emilia has the greater vision and independence - unfortunately not enough to save either of their lives.
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