Emilia in Othello: Character Analysis & Quotes Video

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  • 0:02 The Women of Othello
  • 1:01 Emilia's Role
  • 2:33 Emilia the Feminist
  • 3:50 Shakespeare the Feminist
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Bishop
Although she is not the play's heroine, Emilia stands out as a significant female figure in 'Othello'. Her sharp wit and non-traditional views on men and marriage make Emilia one of Shakespeare's most intriguing ladies.

The Women of Othello

There are only three female characters in Othello, and each plays a critical role in Shakespeare's artfully crafted plot of jealousy and retribution. While the beautiful and pure Desdemona is considered the central female character, Emilia represents a non-traditional woman of the time. She is of respectable birth and social status. Her values, however, do not align with those of a traditional Elizabethan woman.

The third female character, Bianca, is considered a minor presence in the play, but she too represents the opposite extreme to Desdemona's perfection. Bianca is a courtesan, or prostitute, and while we sympathize with her, we recognize that she has little social value in the Elizabethan context. Emilia falls in the middle of this spectrum. She respects Desdemona's purity, but she doesn't believe that women should be sexually or morally subordinate. Emilia is a feminist!

In this lesson, we will explore Emilia's role in Othello as well as her symbolic impact as a literary figure.

Emilia's Role

Emilia is Desdemona's lady in waiting, or attendant. She spends much of her day in Desdemona's service, so she has insight and access to Desdemona's personal life. This gives an advantage to the villain Iago, who is also Emilia's husband. To make Othello believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Iago talks Emilia into giving him Desdemona's handkerchief so that he may plant it in Cassio's quarters.

Emilia is loyal to Desdemona, but she is loyal to Iago. She is caught between her conscience and her responsibilities as both a wife and Desdemona's attendant. This divided duty reveals the complexity of being a woman in Elizabethan England.

Once Emilia hands over the handkerchief to Iago, the plot against Othello accelerates. Cassio finds the handkerchief, and he asks Bianca to make a copy of it. In a fit of jealousy, because she believes that this handkerchief is evidence that Cassio has another lover, Bianca makes a scene in front of Cassio, Othello, and others to proclaim that she will not copy 'some minx's token' (Act 4, Scene 1). Othello recognizes the handkerchief as Desdemona's, which solidifies his suspicions that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair.

Had Emilia not given Iago the handkerchief, Iago's plan to drive Othello mad with jealousy may have failed, but withholding the handkerchief would have also brought hardship upon her marriage. Until the final scene, Emilia does not suspect her husband of plotting against Othello. 'I know thou didst not,' she says to Iago in the final scene after discovering Othello had murdered her mistress, '...thou'rt not such a villain' (Act 5, Scene 2).

Emilia the Feminist

One of the most interesting aspects of Emilia is her philosophy on marriage. Although Emilia was previously accused of having an affair with Othello, her actions throughout the play portray a loyal and honest woman. She is certainly loyal to Iago when she gives him Desdemona's handkerchief, despite her instinct to return it to Desdemona instead.

During this scene, she seems suspicious. 'What will you do with't, that you have been so earnest to have me filch it?' (Act 3, Scene 3). Although Iago does not give a reason for wanting the handkerchief, she leaves without protest when he dismisses her. She is, however, concerned about Desdemona, who she claims will 'run mad' when she realizes the handkerchief is missing (Act 3, Scene 3). Although she is a dutiful wife, Emilia questions her husband, which goes against the grain of the conventional Elizabethan woman.

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