Is it ultimately love that brings Emilia and Desdemona to their deaths and if so, is this justified?
I'm doing a presentation on the theme of love in Othello focusing mainly on Desdemona and Emilia and their relationships with their partners. e.g. Emilia is seen as a passive accomplice of Iago but is she innocent of this because of the fact that she is blinded by her love to him...
I do not think that Emilia and Desdemona meet their respective ends because of love nor that love was what ultimately brought about their deaths. Iago's jealousy and anger was what ultimately figured in both women's deaths. True, Othello did not have to kill Desdemona, but he acted like a coward instead of a general until it was too late.
Emilia may have loved Iago and trusted him in the beginning, but so did everyone else. How else would he have gotten the appellation "honest Iago?" She loved him enough to believe that he only wanted Desdemona's handkerchief for a prank, but once she found out what he had done, she spoke the truth about what he had done. She met her death because Iago chose to kill her after she spoke that truth, not because of her love for him.
It is the same with Desdemona. She loved Othello, but he was too jealous and insecure to believe her, especially when "honest Iago" was saying that she was having an affair with Cassio. She was not especially willing to die for love, but Othello was much stronger than she was, and, up until the end, she did not really think he would go through with killing her.
It was not love, but petty selfishness and jealousy that caused their deaths.
I would also argue that love is not what causes Emilia's and Desdemona's demise. While Iago is mostly to blame for the women's deaths, their passivity does ultimately play a role in their dying. Emilia, who at the end of the play especially is a witty, observant woman, suffers her husband's disparaging her publicly and misses what he is capable of until it is too late. She--more than any other character in the play--has access to "insider" information. She has an opportunity to see the two faces of Iago and should have noticed how different he was around Othello versus his treatment of her. She also witnesses most of the disagreements between Desdemona, and Desdemona confides in her several times about her marital problems; yet Emilia fails to make the connection.
While Shakespeare does characterize Desdemona as being quite naive, she is not stupid. Several incidents present Desdemona with the opportunity to clear her name: she could have told Othello the truth about the handkerchief when she lost it; she could have thought more about how her constant championing of Cassio would have been perceived by her husband (especially since she knows that Othello personally fired Cassio), and she could have fought more for her life. If she truly fears Othello near the play's end, she could have fled to the protection of Gratiano, a Venetian, who is in Cyprus at the time.
In both cases, I do not think it logical to argue that the women were blinded by their love for their husbands. They were blinded by Iago's manipulation and poor choices.
I would be more inclined to see this in the case of Desdemona than in Emilia. Yet, I think that the definition of "love" has to be analyzed in both cases. Certainly, Emilia participates in Iago's scheme to a certain extent. Yet, when she realizes what is happening, she rebukes Iago and proves that she cannot be totally manipulated by him, perhaps the only main character in the play who can boast this. I don't think it is love that ends up killing her, as much as Iago's sense of control and his desire to not let anything stand in his way of his machinations and ulterior scheming. As for Desdemona, I believe that she does love Othello, or at least has feelings for him that resemble love. Yet, I am not entirely certain she understands what is happening to him in terms of succumbing to his own insecurities and Iago's plotting. True love does not kill her for it is not as if she dies knowing that her death is an expression of true love. It is not as if she willingly gives her life for the sake of the other. Rather, she becomes a victim of Othello's own estrangement from both mind and reality.