Emilia is Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. By nature she is a straightforward, outspoken person. However, she is placed in a complicated position because she is torn between her loyalty to her husband and to her mistress, of whom she is very fond. Emilia plays a key role in the plot at two crucial points. It is she who finds the dropped handkerchief and turns it over to Iago, not suspecting how he intends to use it. In addition, at the end she realizes the full extent of Iago’s perfidy and exposes his lies, which leads to his arrest but at the cost of her life. In a parallel with Othello’s killing Desdemona, her husband also kills her.
Although Emilia knows that Iago has a dark side, she does not realize until it is too late that he has become obsessed with ruining Othello. His jealousy has been a problem in their marriage, and part of his underlying motivation seems to be his mistaken conviction that she had slept with Othello.
Emilia offers her insights into male jealousy in a monologue she delivers within a conversation with Desdemona (Act IV, Scene 3). Emilia’s opinion is that the husband is to blame if the wife has sex with another man. Although she does not explicitly state that Iago has done some of the things she mentions, it seems she is drawing on her own experience. She hypothetically mentions their ignoring their responsibilities, acting jealous, and not providing adequate financial support. She suggests they commit physical violence: “say they strike us….” The speech opens with her laying the “fault” on the husbands, and concludes in the same vein:
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.