How Did Emilia End Up With Iago?

Considering the action at the end of the play in Desdemona’s bedroom, we know that Emilia was in the dark about Iago’s schemes, and his treachery was as much an unpleasant surprise to her as anyone else. In fact, before Act V, I think we have good reason to suspect that Emilia might be of similar character to Iago, possibly accomplice to his schemes (so far as she was already involved by retrieving the handkerchief and giving it to Iago). Knowing what we as the audience know of Iago, we must wonder how much insight Emilia has into this matter of Iago’s inner life, how much she is aware, and if she is, why stay with Iago?

Emilia is understood in context to her marriage with Iago, but most importantly as the chambermaid of Desdemona. Her role by Desdemona’s side provides a foil of womanly manners and marital ethics. In Act 2 Scene 1, after receiving a kiss from the overly-courtly Michael Cassio, Iago says of Emilia:

Sir, would she give you so much of her lips
As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,
You’ll have enough. (Act 2 Scene 1)

Emilia then is someone given to talking, “blabbering” as I’m sure Iago conceives it. Despite all the blatant cruelty Iago expresses to his wife both publicly and privately, there is still an apparent bond of trust and cooperation, though Iago and Emilia I believe view their situations differently. In Act 3 Scene 1, Emilia is witness both to Cassio appealing to Desdemona, and when Desdemona urges Othello to reconcile himself to Cassio. She finds Desdemona’s handkerchief and gives it to Iago who has been requesting for her to steal it for him, and not to tell anyone. This indicates to us a level of cunning and trickery in Emilia, or perhaps a foolish trust in her husband who’s most certainly using her. Emilia lies to Desdemona about the handkerchief, but defends Desdemona’s innocence to Othello when he questions her on it. Next consider Emilia’s confessed views on marriage and fidelity:

In troth, I think I should; and undo’t when I had
done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a
joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for
gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty
exhibition; but for the whole world,–why, who would
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch? I should venture purgatory fort. (Act 4 Scene 2)

This goes to show us that Emilia would cheat on Iago if it could somehow give him power. In this we have an ambition that hints at Lady Macbeth, and in this we can make sense of Emilia’s pairing with Iago. However, this isn’t the complete picture of Emilia yet, for then consider what she says about the relations of husbands and wives:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. (Act 4 Scene 2)

Emilia is advocating for a certain equality of infidelity in marital relationships. The bad, adulterous behavior observed in wives has to be learned from their husbands first, Emilia claims. The husband who cheats on his wife teaches his wife to do the same in effect, and Emilia finds this perfectly fair. Considering this, I think we understand Emilia’s actions at the end of the play. She has absolutely been “cheated” by Iago through secrecy, schemes which lead to the death of Desdemona, someone Emilia cares a great deal about despite having differences in marital philosophy. It is only appropriate then, that Emilia “blabber” the truth onto the stage and expose her cruel malicious husband. While Desdemona was loyal and servile to the end of her days with Othello, Emilia would not hesitate to condemn and ruin her husband who has so used and abused her.

All of this considered, I think Emilia is a fascinating character that has dimension. Her philosophies on marriage and the way husbands and wives are supposed to act is telling of her loyalty, both when it is warranted in Desdemona’s case and misplaced in Iago’s. Not only does it speak to her loyalty, but her quality of being “self-possessed”, she has not shackled herself to the bonds of marriage she is supposed to have to Iago, and as modern readers I think we support her decisions at least in the end of the play.

Emilia

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