In a play dominated by men, the scheming Iago, the gullible Othello and the beleaguered Cassio, Emilia acts as a voice of honesty and reason. Although fiercely loyal to her mistress, Desdemona, she inadvertently allows her to be snared in Iago’s trap. Her efforts to save her come too late.
“You have little cause to say so.”
(Act 2, Scene 1)
Emilia’s first words in the play are to challenge her husband when he is deriding her in front of his superiors. It establishes her as a character with strength.
“I will bestow you where you shall have time To speak your bosum freely”
(Act 3, Scene 1)
Emilia inadvertently opens Desdemona to Iago’s schemes by agreeing to allow Cassio access to Desdemona to beg for her help in reconciling him with Othello. Neither woman realises the implications this decision will have.
“What will you do with’t that you have been so earnest to have me filch it?”
(Act 3, Scene 3)
When Emilia gives Iago the infamous handkerchief, she instantly begins to suspect his motives in asking for it. When she dares to question him, he turns on her and sends her away.
“They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, They belch us.”
(Act 3, Scene 4)
Emilia is full of experience and wisdom which she often shares with Desdemona. Here she warns her about the nature of men. It’s obvious to the audience that there are issues in Emilia and Iago’s marriage and that he treats her badly. We do not, however, know if there is any truth in Iago’s accusation towards Othello that “‘twixt my sheets He has done my office”.
“But jealous souls will not be assured so; They are not ever jealous for the cause, But jealous for they are jealous; ‘tis a monster Begot upon itself, born of itself.”
(Act 3, Scene 4)
Just as Iago warns Othello to beware of jealousy, Emilia tells Desdemona that jealously is a monster that eats away at a person. We are aware that only one of them is sincere in this warning. Emilia acts as an honest echo of her dishonest husband.
“I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest, Lay down my soul at stake.”
(Act 4, Scene 2)
The word ‘honest’ is a clear motif in the play. Again we have Emilia’s sincere pronouncement that Desdemona is honest devalued by the fact that the word has been frequently used to describe her insincere husband.
“I will be hang’d if some eternal villain, Some busy and uninsinuating rogue, Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, Have not devised this slander:”
(Act 4, Scene 2)
Shakespeare again uses irony. Emilia is right, this is exactly what has happened. What she does not yet know is that her own husband is the rogue in question.
“If he says so, may his pernicious soul Rot half a grain a day! He lies to the heart.”
(Act 5, Scene 1)
Finally, the truth hits Emilia and she realises that it is indeed Iago who has filled Othello’s head with lies that have led to him murdering the innocent Desdemona. She dies at the hands of her husband, but she does so leaving the audience with a strong sense of her integrity.
Helen Mears is an English teacher who sits on the education committee of the British Shakespeare Association. Follow her on Twitter at @shakesmears.
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