in Shakespeare's Othello, what was Emilia's relationship with Iago and Desdemona?

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Emilia is one of the more intriguing characters in Othello . She is Iago's wife, and while it is easy to think it's an unhappy marriage due to what we know of Iago, Emilia seems to care for him and to genuinely want to please him. She does, for instance,...

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Emilia is one of the more intriguing characters in Othello. She is Iago's wife, and while it is easy to think it's an unhappy marriage due to what we know of Iago, Emilia seems to care for him and to genuinely want to please him. She does, for instance, steal the handkerchief and doesn't admit to doing so when Desdemona is distraught for having lost it. Iago is more than willing to make callous and misogynistic comments typical of a man who spends his time in military camps, and Emilia makes sarcastic remarks about husbands, but these would seem conventional in context.

We know that Othello and Desdemona had spent time together in Venice, but this seems to have been a relatively brief courtship conducted in Brabantio's home (but without his awareness). It doesn't seem plausible that Othello would have taken Iago with him on these social visits; even less plausible would be if Iago had brought Emilia with him. The difference in social standing suggests that in Venice, Desdemona and Emilia would not have been well acquainted and that their bond is forged on Cyprus—as women removed from their normal domestic context. Emilia begins to serve Desdemona because Othello and Iago dispatch to Cyprus, and Desdemona would have no female servants to attend her, given her father's attitude toward her marriage. It can be hard to remember this when reading or seeing the play, but this female friendship may be only a few days or weeks in duration (the link below discusses the two different "times" that seem to operate in the play).

One of the most lyrical scenes occurs near the end of the play, after Othello strikes Desdemona and calls her a "whore." Turning to Emilia, Desdemona inquires about the possibility of marital infidelity. Sadly, even here, Desdemona is so innocent and so in love with Othello that she cannot conceptualize a marriage that includes infidelity. Like Othello, she has an "honest" and "open" nature. Emilia does not suggest she herself has been unfaithful, but she is certainly sophisticated enough in the world of marriage to recognize its possibility:

But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so (4.3)

This speech is both powerful and empowering, for it illustrates that Emilia has an intelligence equal to Iago's in assessing justice and revenge for emotions damaged. Just as Othello and Desdemona early on offer a staggeringly beautiful image of marital love based on mutual power and admiration, Emilia and Iago seem to be equally paired. One could image the foursome rounding out a Shakespearean romantic comedy, had the action of the play not occurred in the isolation of Cyprus.

In this play about faithfulness, we see a change of loyalty in Emilia, from Iago to Desdemona. Emilia finally turns on Iago when she sees that he is largely responsible for Desdemona's death. Like so much in this play, Emilia's truth-speaking is too little and too late, but she does offer a personal integrity, warmth, clarity of mind, and loyalty to goodness that is otherwise in the final scenes of the play.

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Emilia is Iago's wife, and serves as Desdemona's lady-in-waiting. She is therefore a central character in the play, because she is close to both Desdemona and Iago. In a very real sense, she is as caught up in the intrigues, plotting, and betrayal as any character in the play. It is Emilia who takes, at Iago's request, the handkerchief that the wicked Iago uses to convince Othello that his wife is having an affair with Michael Cassio. But it is also Emilia who exposes Iago's treachery once she becomes aware of it, and who castigates Othello for his foolishness in believing the gentle Desdemona capable of such dishonesty. Iago murders her in the final scene for revealing his plot. Both because of her situation and her strength, she is one of the most important characters in the play.

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