In Shakespeare's Othello, examine the role of Emilia. In a sense, her honesty is the "undoing" of Iago. Was she right to betray her husband for her lady? Did she betray her lady or duly serve her...

In Shakespeare's Othello, examine the role of Emilia. In a sense, her honesty is the "undoing" of Iago. Was she right to betray her husband for her lady? Did she betray her lady or duly serve her husband?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Othello, the characters develop around Iago's manipulating schemes, all of which are aimed at destroying Othello. Iago will stop at nothing, as he says in Act I, scene i (line 42) "to serve my turn upon him." Emilia becomes an unwitting accomplice in Desdemona's death but she also speaks out when she realizes what Iago has done, even though it will cost her her life. 

Emilia is an attendant to Desdemona and is a friend to her. She does not question her husband at first, although he mocks her and shows little respect for her. In Act II, Iago says to Cassio, "Sir, would she give you so much of her lips As of her tongue she oft bestows on me" (II.i.101-102).

However, Emilia, although she wants Iago's love, is conflicted in her allegiances. She has refused to steal Desdemona's handkerchief because she draws the line at this level of deceit. However, when she finds the handkerchief because Desdemona has dropped it, she sees an opportunity to gain Iago's admiration; she says "I nothing but to please his fantasy" (III.iii.303). She knows he will be pleased as confirmed when he says "A good wench! Give it to me." (318) She relishes this opportunity. Later, his words will be worthless.

When Desdemona talks to Emilia about Othello's jealousy after he questions Desdemona's faithfulness, Emilia is honest with Desdemona who cannot believe that a woman would "do such a deed for all the world" (Iv.iii. 66). Emilia's own resentment at Iago's treatment of her is apparent and she tells Desdemona that women do betray their husbands but that if they do, it is the husbands' faults because they demand too much and have no appreciation for a woman's own weaknesses. She says "The ills we do, their ills instruct us so" (101), which is significant because it is Emilia's very act of giving Iago the handkerchief that will intensify Othello's jealousy and provide the "ocular proof" he demands.  

Emilia's realization that Iago is the cause of Othello's actions reveals her strength of character. She exposes rather than betrays Iago. She knows that this will implicate her but does not consider the consequences for herself. She wants the truth about Othello and Iago to be known and damns Iago's "pernicious soul" (V.ii.159) if Othello is telling the truth which she at first refuses to believe. Therefore, ultimately Emilia serves Desdemona by ensuring justice for Desdemona's murderer and her malicious, manipulative husband. Emilia is willing to risk dying to expose this heinous crime. She would rather die than continue to serve her husband and it is Iago who kills her.

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