by Anna Thomas
As Hayden Rome, a Roman self proclaimed scholar, said, “Emilia ’twas the dankest,” an admission that may hold more weight than it seems to. The word “dank” is associated with darkness and the shadows, and that is typically where Emilia’s character resides. She rarely speaks her mind, but when she does, incredibly important things occur in the plot. In Othello by William Shakespeare, Emilia, whilst being the most enigmatic character in the play – even more so than her husband – is also the most impactful, complicit in not only Iago’s victories, but also his downfall.
At face value, Emilia is just a woman trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage to her husband, obeying his every wish and command out of loyalty, love, fear, or some combination of those. She is beholden to her husband, obeying his every wish, and never retaliatory when he verbally abuses her, even when in front of others. She carries out the plan to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief, an action that has serious ramifications, most importantly being Desdemona’s ultimate fate. This decision to betray her friend is a confusing one, yet Emilia offers no explanation, keeping the reader in the dark about herself and her various and sundry motivations once more. In one of her most important scenes, the Willow Scene, she tells Desdemona that she would cheat on her husband “for the whole world”, for “who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch”(IV.iii.85-87). This thought is the first time the reader gets an insight to Emilia’s character, and the first time she actually expresses some sort of rebellion. Whether or not she chooses to keep these thoughts to herself out of fear or natural reticence, it is unclear, but it is telling that she only reveals these thoughts to Desdemona, who she adores. In fact, the only time she breaks free from Iago’s control when she realizes how her husband was complicit in the death of Desdemona, and even asks Othello to “lay [her] by [her] mistress’s side” when Iago kills her (V.ii.284). This action shows how, although she appears to be loyal to Iago, her truest loyalty is to Desdemona, something that nobody knows about her until the very end. Her last act is revealing Iago as the villain the entire time, which is especially important because she is the only character he didn’t have a plan for. She was his downfall, his Achilles heel: without her, he would have never been caught. Her final words are “so speaking as I think, alas I die” which is the most compelling evidence of her reticence (V.ii.301). For the first time in her life, she has spoken her own thoughts, voicing them to ruin her husband and avenge her mistress, and this final brave action leaves her dead, murdered by the man she unmasked.
Emilia is the most enigmatic character in the play, and she single-handedly changes the outcome of the story, not once, but twice, securing not only the fates of Desdemona and Othello, but also the fate of her husband. Shakespeare’s motivations for her character’s personality are equally enigmatic: it makes me wonder what he was thinking when he wrote her into this play. She could have had a smaller role, with less effect on the plot, but Shakespeare wrote her as an influential woman with important thoughts and impacts on almost every character’s fate. Was this on purpose? Was there a message that Shakespeare was trying to convey? All in all, Emilia was indeed a dank character, and our questions about her only contribute to that darkness and mystery.