by Kelley Orr
Emilia, a seemingly insignificant character in Othello because of her lack of lines and presence in scenes, plays a character who is crucial to the plot and message of the tragedy. Emilia is important because of her small actions but more importantly because of her sufferings before the story starts and throughout the play have made her wise, and she passes on her wisdom to the audience as well as the characters on stage.
Emilia’s husband Iago is a misogynist jerk, and the readers learn a lot about Emilia as a character from the way he treats her and other women. Emilia enters the stage a few times throughout the story, sometimes to bring other characters on or off, sometimes to help Desdemona, or sometimes to help the audience learn more about Iago. Emilia appears in 2.1, 3.1, 3.3, 3.4, 4.2, and 4.3. In 2.1, Emilia arrives in Cyprus with Desdemona, Cassio, and Iago, while they all wait for Othello to arrive. While Emilia’s being in this scene is not truly crucial, it gives the audience the sense that Iago and Emilia do not really have a healthy relationship. The way he acts towards her seems verbally abusive, and his behavior towards her says a little about her character, but a lot about his. For example,
“Come on, come on. You are pictures out of door, / bells in your parlors, wild-cats in your kitchens, / saints in your injuries, devils being offended, play- / ers in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds (II.i.122-125).”
“You shall not write my praise (II.i.129)”
She lets her husband push her over like this and treat her awfully. Iago insults Emilia as well as all women, calling them all the same and saying women belong in the house. And if she really loves her husband she would try to do anything to get a loving spark back from him, which is exactly what she tries to do later.
Throughout Act 3, Emilia serves a number of purposes. Iago nags her to get Cassio to talk to Desdemona so his evil plan can continue to unravel. Also, one of the most key elements for the tragedy to occur is the loss of Desdemona’s handkerchief. Iago has been asking Emilia to steal it, and when the innocent Desdemona drops it, Emilia picks it up. Possibly thinking this piece of fabric is a solution for her broken marriage, she says, “I am glad I have found this napkin[…] My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Wooed me to steal it (III.iii.334-335).” In some performances of the play, Emilia teases Iago with the handkerchief, the actor could use it to be mean to him. In some instances, the actor could perform it like the handkerchief is not a big deal. And in some instances, the actor playing Iago remains abusive towards her while demanding the handkerchief, sometimes he flirts back, sometimes he gets on top of her *wink wink* like one of the film adaptations.
Desdemona and Emilia have a quiet relationship. What I mean by quiet is that their relationship is very proper and professional as the readers can tell from Emilia being her mistress and nothing more. Desdemona occasionally asks Emilia for advice, and in IV.iii.95-115, Emilia gives Desdemona the best piece of advice she can give to her and also to the men and women of the audience. “Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them (IV.iii.105-106)” means that men, particularly husbands, even more specifically, those who cheat, need to know their wives are people too. Emilia’s wise words from personal experience gives the audience knowledge on how broken marriages are started.
At first glance, a high school student such as I did not understand a word Emilia was saying, but after some investigating and researching, I have come to this conclusion: Emilia’s words about feminism were as beautiful as they were true. I did not know if feminism was a thing at the time of this play being written, but I never would have guessed that these ideas existed in this time period. I thought feminism was more of a 20th century and on type of idea. Emilia’s ideas that husbands need to know their wives are people too is something that most people would say they already understand, but at this time and today, this is an still issue. Domestic abuse still happens between men and women, and more commonly the harm is brought upon women, the wives or sisters or daughters or grandmothers or mothers of the household. And it makes me feel uncomfortable that domestic abuse is still an issue. Emilia is truly speaking from experience because of actions from Iago like when he snatches the handkercief from her in Act 3 demonstrants Emilia has been verbally, physically, and emotionally abused. Yet, she is a strong woman though because she puts up with it and passes on her wisdom Desdemona and the audience. Iago does not treat her like a human being, he treats her like a “villainous whore” (V.ii.273), and judging from this word choice, he does not see her as a woman, or even his own wife. Iago’s verbal abuse towards Emilia proves her point that broken marriages are started with husbands disrespecting their wives.
Emilia is a strong woman in a weak and abusive relationship who tries to satisfy her husband by bringing him tools for his secret evil plan. She is not afraid when she is threatened by Othello and Iago, and is faithful to her mistress Desdemona except when she does not tell her mistress about the discovery of Desdemona’s handkerchief.
Emilia’s most powerful quality is her good, strong mind. She is obedient, and she tries to heal her broken marriage, and she tries to show the audience how broken marriages are started. Emilia’s speech about feminism portrays her as a woman who as been abused, and she eloquently and effortlessly explains solutions for domestic abuse to Desdemona. In conclusion, Emilia is a woman who suffered an undeserving death, but her wise words will leave a beautiful legacy.