In Emilia's Defense
Note: this was written for my Shakespeare class. Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdamona's handmaiden.
Emilia gets something of a bad rap. Frequently dismissed as vulgar, simple and unintelligent, she tends to elicit contempt and dismissal from most critics. W.H. Auden, for example, in his Lectures on Shakespeare, writes Emilia off as a useful idiot for Iago’s schemes, a ‘stupid’ woman whose primary motivation to minimize fuss, and who is willing to do “anything for a quiet life (p. 200),” including the key theft of Desdemona’s handkerchief which will ultimately lead to her murder. “Stupid Emilia, by stealing the handkerchief, kills Desdemona (p.201),” concludes Auden, who is perfectly willing to leave her at that.
This is perhaps unfair. In truth, Emilia’s character is much more complicated and even intelligent than Auden’s dismissal implies, subtly drawn and ultimately the play’s best exemplar of moral strength and of clarity. What is interesting about her character, however, is not only the degree of ethical power that she finally wields in the play’s concluding scenes, but the amount of change that her character must undergo to obtain such moral authority. As A.C. Bradley, in his Shakespearean Tragedy, notes:
Few of Shakespeare’s minor characters are more distinct than Emilia, and towards few do our feelings change so much within the course of the play. Till close to the end she frequently sets one’s teeth on edge; and at the end one is ready to worship her (p. 205).
Indeed, no other figure in Othello forces an audience to completely shift its opinion of him or herself the way that Iago’s wife does by the play’s end. The only character to perform a complete transformation of character over the course of Othello’s action, Emilia progresses rapidly from her early role as coarse and subservient foil to Iago into a resolute and effective defender of Desdemona’s virtue.
There is something semi-miraculous about her quick evolution, and it provokes obvious question to how such rapid development of personality and understanding manages to occur in her character alone. In contrast, the seeds of Othello’s excessive jealousy and rage are evident in his early overstated and over-romanticized speeches. Likewise, Desdemona’s essential naiveté is only faintly eroded by the play’s end and Iago’s predatory motives are already presented to an audience twenty lines into the play. It is Emilia alone that ultimately comes into a critical change of understanding, into full comprehension of the evil that Iago has perpetrated. This understanding in turn paves way for a simplicity and clarity of action that her character alone in the play is suited for.
The shape of Emilia transformation, however, is both complex and subtle. In time, she is increasingly present, increasingly loyal to Desdemona and the positive values that she represents over Iago and those that he negatively asserts, increasingly likely to stand up to bullies like Othello and her husband and increasingly outraged with and vocal about the circumstances that have conspired against Desdemona. In short, through the course of the play, she manages to bridge the full dichotomy between Iago and the forces of deception that he represents, and Desdemona and the powers of virtue that align themselves with her.
This transformation into defender of virtue is interesting, because in many ways, Emilia starts out as something of an anti-Desdemona. Whereas Othello’s wife is presented as charming and virtuous from the beginning of the play, Emilia is introduced to the audience in II.i, by Iago, as a bit of a shrew. Although Iago’s claims that his wife is perpetually complaining to him are more than a little ironic, coming as they do in a scene where Emilia speaks a grand total of three lines, the audience is not without its criticisms of her character at this point. She appears to be overly deferent to Iago, passive and unable to stand up for herself; aside from one witty, defensive retort, she says nothing in this scene to directly refute Iago’s accusations against her.
Similarly, the only roles that she holds for the entirety of the next act are those of go-between, passive observer, and thief. In III.i she appears briefly to offer her services to Cassio as mediator between himself and Othello. She then reprises this role in III.iii, serving as a spokesperson for Iago to Desdemona. She then stands utterly silent while Othello is difficult with Desdemona about Cassio’s sponsorship, and what’s more, she plucks up Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief for delivery to Iago at the end of this scene.
It gets worse. In the next scene, she lies outright to Desdemona about the location of the handkerchief. “Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia” asks Othello’s wife. “I know not, madam, (III.iv.22-3)” responds Emilia, lying through her teeth. On top of this, she stands completely silent once again when Othello comes in, enraged, and demands the location of the handkerchief. After his departure, Emilia can only muster a few mumbled words about Othello’s jealousy and comment abstractly on the nature of male-female relations (even if her speech here is unwittingly both accurate and powerful).
If an audience is inclined to think of Emilia at this point as thick, ordinary and duplicitous, a dumber Iago, as it were, they would not be castigated for saying so. Indeed an excellent moral case can be made against her at this point. Why would Emilia steal a handkerchief that she knew was of enormous value to Desdemona? Why would she still remain silent even after witnessing Othello’s rage?
The easiest explanation is that Emilia still maintains loyalty primarily to Iago at this point in the play. She steals the handkerchief out of obedience to him and covers up the theft both out of duty to her husband and also to cover her own tracks. In the third scene of the play, Desdemona professes to Barbantio that her first loyalty is to Othello as husband, even above the loyalty that she owes her father. There is no reason why Emilia shouldn’t feel exactly the same way about Iago. Furthermore, until Othello enters the scene (and her silence becomes a matter of immediate survival), there’s no reason why Emilia shouldn’t lie to Desdemona; all that Iago has told her of the handkerchief is that he “has use for it (III.iii.319).” There is absolutely no reason why she shouldn’t trust him.
Up until the point of Othello’s rage, that is. Emilia is certainly not the most cunning of Othello’s cast, yet she is not so stupid that she fails to make any connection between Iago’s designs and Othello’s anger. This connection is certainly not be fully made, even after the scene of Othello’s anger, but Emilia undoubtedly has some hint of suspicion, itself more than any other character possesses at this point.
This suspicion catalyzes a fairly remarkable change in character. When Othello interrogates her in Act IV, Scene ii, about his wife’s fidelity, Emilia sticks up for Desdemona unambiguously, even through Othello’s scorn. Othello shoos her out of the room, but as Bradley notes, Emilia must here linger outside the door, because she knows the full text of Othello’s accusations upon returning to the scene. He also notes that the same attributes of character that were previously seen by an audience as detrimental to Emilia - simplicity and coarseness - here actually work for her as a sort of moral clarity and direct honesty. She is able to repeat the word that Desdemona cannot (“whore”), and she does so repeatedly out of outrage.
When she calls Iago into the scene, she also says nearly immediately what nobody else in the play is capable of saying:
Hath she forsook so many noble matches,
Her father and her country and her friends,
To be call'd whore? (IV.ii 125-7).
Iago makes the fatal misstep of asking about a “trick” against Othello, and Emilia capitalizes upon his poor word choice, noting that she will ‘be hanged’ if, in fact, somebody did work to poison Othello’s mind against Desdemona. This idea, entirely new to Othello’s wife, prompts genuine reaction: “If any such there be, Heaven pardon him! (IV.ii.135)” As Bradley again notes, Emilia’s strophic response to this,
A halter pardon him and Hell gnaw his bones (IV.ii.136)!
“says what the audience longs to say, and helps them (Bradley, 207).” Finally, and most subtly, when Iago orders her dismissed, she disobeys him outright and stays put for well over twenty lines.
In the next scene, she does several things to endear her further to the audience. First, she is disobedient outright when Desdemona recites Othello’s command to dismiss her. Secondly, she expresses anger and outrage at Othello that Desdemona is wholly incapable of. Thirdly, she delivers some of the most assertive, pro-feminist speeches in the entire play, and exposes Desdemona’s supposed infidelity as the relative trifle it is, even if it were true.
It is in the play’s final scene, however, that Emilia is at her most impressive. She stations herself outside the door while Othello murders Desdemona, trying her best to interrupt the act. Then, after the murder, she expresses the truth of the situation, first to Othello’s unbelieving ears and then to the rest of the party in Venice. She refuses to back down first to Othello, and then to Iago, who does his best to leverage his power over his wife into her silence. She is defiant to the end, and she is killed for her honesty.
In short, Emilia’s transformation from mere lackey for Iago into what is essentially the moral center of the play has something of the sublime to it. Her own moral purity is not perfect; she does, for instance, castigate Bianca for infidelity immediately after her speech on adultery. Yet this, and other details where she slips, does not make Emilia any less the voice of moral outrage in the play. It also helps to make her what her husband and Desdemona each are not: humane as well as pragmatic. Ultimately, however, her gift to the audience is exactly what Iago denies everybody at last - words of outrage, words of anger and ultimately of honesty, compassion and of courage.