In Othello, why does Emilia give the handkerchief to Iago?

In Othello, Emilia gives the handkerchief to Iago because she wants to please him. She has no idea of the evil plans he has for it.

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As part of Iago's evil scheme to avenge Othello for passing him over as lieutenant and possibly sleeping with his wife, he plans to obtain Desdemona's handkerchief, which was Othello's first gift to her and a token of his love. Iago knows Othello desires "ocular proof" of Desdemona's infidelity and recognizes the importance of circumstantial evidence in the eyes of a jealous person. He has faith Othello will misinterpret the missing handkerchief and immediately jump to conclusions. Iago has already asked Emilia numerous times to steal Desdemona's handkerchief before she randomly stumbles upon it. Similar to the other characters in the play, Emilia is completely unaware of her husband's wicked scheme and acts as another pawn in his master plan.

In act 3, scene 3, Desdemona accidentally drops her handkerchief, and Emilia recovers it. In an aside, Emilia reveals what she plans to do with her friend's beloved keepsake. Emilia mentions that her "wayward" husband has asked for it "a hundred times" and knows Othello told Desdemona to always keep it with her. She then comments on her plans to copy the embroidery pattern before giving it to Iago simply because she desires "nothing but to please his fantasy."

Emilia's desire to satisfy Iago highlights the extent of his deception and cunning. Iago has manipulated his wife into contributing to his evil plan and will use the handkerchief to mislead Othello. Rather than return the handkerchief to her friend, Emilia gives it to her crafty husband to make him happy. Once Iago possesses Desdemona's handkerchief, he reveals his plan to place it in Cassio's home, making it seem like Desdemona gave away her most important keepsake.

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Emilia, like so many other characters in the play, including Othello and Desdemona, is deceived by Iago. She knows more than some of the others that he is not entirely a good person—she calls him "wayward," which means unpredictable or perverse. However, like the others, she does not realize the depth of his corruption and depravity. Iago is far more than "wayward" or unpredictable—he is evil.

Emilia, precisely because she is a good person who cannot imagine how deeply and wholly her husband wants to destroy Othello, gives Iago the handkerchief after Desdemona drops it. She does this because she wants to please her husband. She explains her thinking in the following speech in act 3, scene 3:

I am glad I have found this napkin,
This was her first remembrance from the Moor.
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed 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 ʼt to Iago. What he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I.
I nothing but to please his fantasy.

As Emilia explains, Desdemona loves this handkerchief because it was a gift from Othello. Emilia also explains that she doesn't know why Iago wants it. She knows her husband realizes that she loves Desdemona and can't conceive that he would ruthlessly use her, his own wife, to enable his plot to destroy her mistress as "collateral" damage in his real quest to destroy Othello.

Emilia's willingness to indulge her husband reveals how skillfully Iago has hidden his depravity from others. Like many sociopaths, he is able to imitate the behavior of normal people with empathy while being inwardly filled with rage and hate. Emilia has no idea, for example, that he thinks all women, including her, are "whores" and animals and therefore thinks Desdemona's death is justified. She has no conception, until it is far too late, of what he has been plotting. When she does find out, she exposes him.

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In Othello, Iago is manipulative and uncaring. He is self-serving and is happy to cause distress to anyone if it furthers his cause to "serve my turn upon" Othello (I.i.42). Iago, whilst revealing to Roderigo that "I am not what I am" (66) becomes Othello's trusted "ancient" and all that Othello sees or thinks he sees strengthens the "ocular proof" which Othello ironically demands in Act III, scene iii, line 364. Othello will reject all other sensible options and rational reasons why Desdemona may have lost the handkerchief. He won't even listen to her as she tells him that Cassio must have found it. He fails to recognize her innocence because of his trust in "honest Iago" which confirms that one of the main themes is the conflict between appearance and reality.

Emilia is also entrapped by Iago although she does recognize that he is "wayward" (III.iii.296). She admits that he has asked her to steal the handkerchief many times which she would never do, especially as she knows how much it means to Desdemona but as Desdemona has just dropped it, Emilia realizes that she can now please her husband and not feel guilty. Emilia does not know the extent of Iago's deceit and is content to "please his fantasy" (303). She gives him the handkerchief because she knows it holds some significance for him and is prepared to allow him that indulgence. Emilia's conflict becomes apparent when the audience sees her loyalty to Desdemona and her outspokenness when she realizes what Iago has used the handkerchief for. Emilia refers to Iago's "pernicious soul" (V.ii.159) and shouts out that Othello has committed "murder! murder!" (170). 

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Emilia gave the handkerchief to Iago for the simplest of reasons: she didn't realize how important it was going to be, and he was her husband (and she wanted to please him). However, this little piece of cloth became very important. Othello had originally given the handkerchief to Desdemona. Iago convinces Othello that Cassio gave it to Bianca, which convinces him that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. When the handkerchief's role in things is revealed in the final act, Emilia realizes all the manipulation Iago's done, and what a monster she's married to.

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