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Emilia In Shakespeare’s Othello Essay, Research Paper

Often in our society people are labelled as, or fit into a, certain character mould and their behaviour and actions remain consistent. However, in William Shakespeare’s Othello, Emilia’s character portrays three completely different archetypes and they all come through in strategical places throughout the course of the play. When introduced to Emilia, the reader sees her as a whore because of her worldly demeanour. While later on her husband, Iago, tricks her, thereby becoming a dupe. However as the play unfolds and Iago’s sinister plot unravels Emilia emerges as a hero and her righteousness shines bright. Although a small character, Shakespeare uses Emilia and her three archetypes as a tool in creating his story line and eventually in tying it all together at the climactic conclusion of this tragic tale.

The first of such archetypes is that of a whore with a realistic view on life. Introduced in Act 2, Scene 1 Emilia almost immediately is described as a whore by her husband, Iago: “You rise to play and go to bed to work.” (Shakespeare, 2.1.3) He speaks poorly of her and repeatedly refers to her as a “wench” (3.3.311) and other things of that nature, which leads the reader to believe he has little to no respect for his wife. She in return has little respect for her husband, and marriage as a whole: “They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us.” (3.4.104-106) Such statements indicate to the reader that Emilia is knowledgeable or worldly in the relations between man and wife. Obviously her marriage is less than ideal, and brings little, if any, satisfaction. This could have possibly tainted her views on marriage and men all together. In Act 4, Scene 3 Othello’s wife, Desdemona, and Emilia have a conversation on cheating and what might drive a woman to make a “cuckhold” (4.3.78) of her husband. Here, Shakespeare creates a character foil between the two women. Desdemona can’t imagine “That there be women do abuse their husbands / In such gross kind.” (4.3.63) Whereas Emilia is portrayed in complete contrast, going on to say that she knows of such women and describes why a woman might do such a thing: ” But I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties…/ or say they strike us.” (4.3.89-93.91-92) She continues on to say; “Then let them use us well; else let them know, / The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” (4.3.105-106) She is so passionate about the issue and appears to be defending such women, leading one to believe that she is such a woman. One might note the rumour of the alleged affair between Emilia and Othello. Whether such an event took place or not is of little importance in determining that Emilia’s character is that of a whore, but that is not the only archetype in which she possesses.

Emilia becomes that of a dupe soon after she’s introduced and this trait plays an important role in Shakespeare’s plot. In Act 3, Scene 2 the reader learns that Iago desires Desdemona’s handkerchief, so when she drops it, Emilia takes notice and tucks it away to give to her husband: “What he will do with it, / Heaven knows, not I; I nothing but to please his / fantasy.” (3.2.296) Little does she know that Iago plans to plant the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom in order to provide some evidence to Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Emilia also comes across as a dupe when she says; “I will be hanged if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, / Have not devised this slander. I will be hanged else” (4.2.129-132) because the man responsible for putting the idea of jealousy into Othello’s head is her husband, who just so happens to be standing next to her, and she had a hand in creating this myth by stealing the handkerchief. Towards the conclusion of the play Emilia is proven to be a dupe yet again when Othello reveals to her that it was Iago that told him of the affair between Cassio and Desdemona. She reacts in disbelief, repeating the phrase, “My husband” (5.2.138) quite a few times. In all fairness to Emilia she had no way of knowing that her husband was responsible for all that transpired and therefore isn’t stupid, just oblivious or unaware of the truth, but as she discovers Iago’s sinister plot she reveals the truth and emerges as a hero.

Her heroism is the most desirable of Emilia’s three archetypes and it is most evident towards this tragic tale’s conclusion. Following Desdemona’s death Emilia learns that it was an act of jealousy brought upon by her husband, Iago, who told Othello of the alleged relationship between Desdemona and Cassio. She defends Desdemona’s honour, even going so far as to say; “If he say so, may his pernicious soul / Rot half a grain a day! He lies to th’ heart.” (5.2.152-153) She continues to speak of Desdemona’s innocence even when Othello draws his sword: “I care not for thy sword.” (5.2.163) As the plot unfolds Iago enters and orders his wife to go home, as she is the only one able to uncover his scheme. Yet she refuses: “Tis proper I obey him, but not now. / Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.” (5.2.192-193) This direct defiance of her husband is an act of bravery and heroism in its own right because at that time women were to do as they were told or were subject to both physical and emotional abuse. Her final act of heroism, which ultimately was the cause of her death, came when she discovered that the handkerchief, which she stole and gave to her husband, was used as evidence of the alleged affair between Cassio and Desdamona. She had uncovered the truth; her husband was to blame for the entire mess. Planting the idea of the affair in Othello’s head and providing the evidence Othello needed to believe such an event took place. Upon this discovery Emilia says; “…that handkerchief / thou speak’st of / I found by some fortune, and did give my husband…/ He begged of me to steal’t.” (5.2.222-226.224-225) No sooner are the words out of her mouth when Iago lunges across the room and stabs her, ultimately taking her life. She dies a heroic death, defending Desdemona’s honour and uncovering the truth.

Shakespeare uses Emilia and her three archetypes as a tool in creating his story line and eventually in tying it all together at the climactic conclusion of this tragic tale. She comes across as a whore because of her views on women cheating on their husbands and is also proven to be a dupe due to her unawareness of the trickery her husband is up to. Her most endearing quality though, is the heroism she displays towards the end of the play. She makes the greatest sacrifice possible by giving her life defending the honour of sweet Desdemona. The three archetypes Emilia portrays all play a significant role in William Shakespeare’s Othello. It is rare, yet refreshing that one person can possess such a wide range of traits; it makes for a more complex and interesting character which one should enjoy reading about for years to come.


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