Ill-treated women - Emilia


Emilia is Iago’s wife and assigned to be a lady’s maid to Desdemona after her marriage to Othello. She also quickly becomes Desdemona’s confidante and hears about her mistress’s sorrow and heartache at Othello’s unkindness. Desdemona’s innocence and new passion for her husband is juxtaposed with Emilia’s more cynical take on male/female relationships.

An abused wife

There is little love lost between Emilia and Iago. He appears to be emotionally abusive, dishonouring her in public and ordering her around in dismissive tones. That Emilia, who clearly has a strong character, complies with his requests and fails to speak out until Othello’s evidence impels her to, speaks of a wife who is either scared of her husband or yearns for some crumbs of affection and has learnt that compliance is the only way to gain favour. Thus she betrays her better instincts.
She obeys Iago in stealing the handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello, but almost immediately regrets it when she suspects him of planning to use it treacherously (Act 3 Scene 3). Emilia knows all too well the way her husband’s mind works. She’s aware that her suspicious and possessive husband even suspects her of committing adultery with Othello. There is absolutely no evidence to support his mistrust. 

Moral ambivalence

There are a number of instances when it is hard to respect Emilia, even while an audience might understand psychologically why she acts as she does.
Despite being loyal to her husband thus far, in Act 4 Scene 3 she admits her willingness to cuckold him, on the basis that it would serve to advance his position. Her pragmatism seems learnt from years with her Machiavellian husband. 
It is hard to understand why she says nothing about the stolen handkerchief even when she knows that its loss is causing trouble for her mistress. As a servant she is perhaps fearful of owning up to her involvement.
She viciously lays into Bianca at the end of Act 5 Scene 1 – perhaps because Bianca is a scapegoat for Emilia’s own sense of complicity, perhaps because she wants to please Iago, perhaps because Bianca’s assertion that she and Emilia are alike in honesty/morality has to be refuted, given Bianca’s public reputation.
In the face of poor behaviour from husbands, Emilia’s solution is to play them at their own game. It is understandable that she wants to make Iago pay for the pain he has inflicted and to live beyond the constraints of an unsatisfactory marriage. To a modern audience, this might seem a reasonable viewpoint, and Emilia can be seen as striking a blow for feminism. However her comments are framed by Desdemona’s desire to ‘mend’ wrong behaviour and her abhorrence at being unfaithful to Othello, an attitude Shakespeare’s audience would uphold.


It is perhaps surprising that Emilia so quickly forms a strong loyalty to Desdemona, but she sees in her mistress a genuine innocence and goodness, the complete antithesis of her husband’s character. When Othello questions his wife’s faithfulness, Emilia defends her integrity in the strongest terms (Act 4 Scene 2). 
In the last scene, Emilia is courageous in defending her mistress – perhaps also motivated by shame at her own complicity in Desdemona’s destruction. When Othello responds threateningly her response is a defiant, ‘Do thy worst’. Once Iago admits that he told Othello that Desdemona was an adulteress, Emilia reacts furiously in refuting him, refuses to obey Iago’s threatening command to keep quiet and tells the whole truth about the handkerchief even when Iago draws his sword and then murders her. As she dies, she again affirms Desdemona’s innocence and is content to show her devoted loyalty to her mistress to the last.
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