Emilia seems to be a faithful wife to the general public, but in the security of Desdemona’s chamber she reveals the possibility of a lesser love for Iago, which is ultimately the only love she has for Iago. Emilia acts the part of a good wife for as long as Iago’s honor is known to be true. She offers Iago the respect he demands in public, portraying the image of a faithful wife and also upholding Iago’s image and dignity as a man. Iago publically calls her out on her outspokenness, telling Cassio that if “she were to give you so much of her lips as of her tongue she oft bestows on me, you would have enough” (2.1.103-105). Emilia remains silent, even in the wake of Desdemona proclaiming that “she has no speech” (2.1.106). She does not remark on her husband’s foul speech or attitude toward, nor does she justify herself to Cassio. She merely stands in his midst and is silent. Perhaps she is trying to prove her worthiness of Iago as a husband and prove that she can fulfill the desired role of a wife. Her faith to Iago is reinforced upon her finding the handkerchief. She intends “nothing, but to please [Iago’s] fantasy” by handing over the token to him, rather than return it to Desdemona (3.3.303). She puts her husband’s wishes before those of Desdemona, and unknowingly, she takes place in the undoing of her friend. The line she speaks can be interpreted in one of two ways: either her only purpose in life is to please Iago, or she means no harm in forfeiting the handkerchief to Iago rather than returning it to Desdemona. The former reason is unlikely, given the nature of her speech in Act IV where she addresses the right of a woman to deceive her husband because they have certainly cheated on their wives. She says that women “yet have revenge” to portray her belief that women can act out against their husbands (4.3.91).
However, the instance of the handkerchief illustrates an initial hesitance to obey Iago. Despite Iago’s wooing for her to steal the token, Emilia has refrained because Desdemona “so loves the token” (3.3.296). Her willingness to please isn’t great enough for her to steal from a friend or to go out of her way to please him, but she will when presented with the opportunity. The layers to her love (or dutifulness) for Iago is extenuated when Desdemona asks her if she would ever entertain another man. Emilia’s response is not a strict denial of such a possibility, but would “venture Purgatory for’t” (4.3.75). She does, however, have the decency to cheat, and cheat with justice, upon the infidelity of Iago, stating that women “have sense like their husbands” (4.3.92). Her confession to possibly dishonoring Iago (not that he has much honor to begin with) is only professed in the privacy of her friend’s chamber. Desdemona is clearly an honorable woman who would not betray Emilia, and so Emilia is confident that she would not be exposed to the world. This also saves Iago from embarrassment in the lack of complete faith Emilia would most likely show him. She, again, is aware of his honor and her conscious effort not to botch it. Even in the midst of Iago’s undoing, when Othello says that Iago is the one that fed him all of the information about Desdemona’s love for Cassio, Emilia continues to have enough decency to at least pretend she believes he could be innocent. She repeatedly questions Othello’s words, asking for confirmation that he does, indeed, speak of “her husband” (5.2.146). She clearly does not want to publicly shame him if he should be innocent, but again shows her lack of complete love/duty to him. She finally speaks out against Iago after he confirms the accusations he made of Desdemona; “I will not charm my tongue, I am bound to speak” (5.2.191).
Emilia is testing her limits of love/duty to Iago throughout the play, sparing his honor when he has not openly done wrong. Her duty to protect the innocent is greater than the vow she proclaimed to Iago on the wedding day, as illustrated by her turn in character. The defiance she shows him in favor of Desdemona is the final straw in the back-and-forth duty she has shown him. Despite her part in the passing of the handkerchief, she did nothing to accelerate the process (she didn’t steal it as he originally asked), and she did nothing to publicly humiliate him prior to the exposition of his true character. She fumbles with her faith to him throughout the entire play, only to succeed his influence in favor of the expression of her own character. Her infidelity to him is exposed, and it all the more satisfactory that her revenge wasn’t acted out through loving another man, but through a clear expression of disgust for the one to whom she was married.