by Will Kunetka
In Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, Emilia represents one of the most complex and puzzling characters in the play. She often feels torn between her obligations to her husband, Iago, and her service to Desdemona. This struggle poses as the main internal conflict that Emilia faces, which eventually morphs into an external conflict when her own husband stabs her in the back, physically and emotionally.
Emilia feels a strong connection to both her husband and master, yet, in the end, she chooses to stay loyal to her best friend and confidant, Desdemona. She does, however also aim to please her husband, even if she does not do so out of love. It seems that she will do anything for him, whether it be out of fear of the consequences if she doesn’t, or out of true devotion. When she discovers the napkin which Desdemona had dropped, she recognizes it as the one for which Iago has asked many times. She doesn’t know why he would want it, saying in act 3 scene 3 that “I’ll have the work ta’en out, / And give’t Iago: what he will do with it, / Heaven knows, not I; / I nothing but to please his fantasy,” but she takes it up anyway and brings it to him. She then innocently interrogeated him on his need for the object, but he rudely snatches the handkerchief and dismisses her for the night. Her claim that she nothing but to please his fancy is strong evidence as to her motive for making such a bold move against her master. She blindly stole, solely to get the approval of her abusive husband. Emilia is Desdemona’s maid also, and it becomes evident that both their marital troubles draw them closer, since they are experiencing similar problems. The fiasco that began with Desdemona’s handkerchief does appear at first to trouble the relationship between the two ladies, since Emilia lies directly and unhesitantly to Desdemona’s face. “Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?”/ “I know not, madam”(III.iv.23). After being disgraced by her husband and accused of disloyalty, however, this scene seems to morph into a true turning point in the relationship between Desdemona and Emilia. Emilia is disappointed that she was not rewarded for her work, and Desdemona is frustrated with the way her husband is treating her, and Emilia, who often serves as an older mentor figure for Desdemona, makes a bold metaphor which forms a true bond between the two.”They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us. Look you, Cassio and my husband!”(III.iv.99-102) As she relates to Desdemona’s situation and shows empathy towards her, Emilia sets the stage for her ultimate choice to side with Desdemona when the time comes. She begins to realize that Iago only sees her as a tool for his use in order to get back at Othello and make his way to the top of the political food chain. She is to watch over Desdemona so that Iago may be able to know what she is saying and better infiltrate the family. He only uses her to gain what he needs, such as the handkerchief, then discard her by killing her in act 5 scene 2. His last words to her are:“Villainous whore!” and “Filth, thou liest!”. She is also angered when Othello kills Desdemona and declares her loyalty and decision to uphold her relationship with her in this quote from act 5 scene 2: “By heaven, I do not, I do not, gentlemen. / O murderous coxcomb! what should such a fool / Do with so good a woman?” She essentially betrays Iago in front of Othello and a whole room full of nobles who are ready to kill him. Did she know that he would kill her when she revealed that he was indeed the villain feeding Othello the evil thoughts about Desdemona, and become one of the heroes of the play for revealing the truth behind the tragedy?
Emilia dies an honest woman in the last scene of the play, having finally chosen the truth over the consent and love of her husband. Undoubtedly, Emilia is a role model for many people for her bravery and courage in a time of crisis when faced with a very difficult decision. The only way to make a decision like the one which Emilia faces is to do what is right and stay faithful to one’s deepest gut feelings.