In his tragic play Othello, Shakespeare endows the minor character Emilia with some important functions. Her character, which changes dramatically in several ways toward the finale of the play, is the topic of this essay.
A.C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, defines the character of the ancient’s wife:
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 tooth on edge; and at the end one is ready to worship her. She nowhere shows any sign of having a bad heart; but she is common, sometimes vulgar, in…show more content… thou praisest the worst best.” Desdemona is Emilia’s protectress against her husband.
Unfortunately, later Emilia is manipulated by her husband. Iago, in planning his strategy following the dismissal of Cassio, says, “My wife must move for Cassio to her mistress; I’ll set her on”; and she shortly thereafter gives the lieutenant access to Desdemona: “I will bestow you where you shall have time / To speak your bosom freely.” Emilia is sheepish at times: She announces to Desdemona, who is with Cassio, “Madam, here comes my lord,” referring to the Moor. Emilia functions basically as a servant to Desdemona and a dupe for Iago. She freely gives him the handkerchief which he has asked her to steal, knowing quite plainly that the loss would pain her mistress:
I am glad I have found this napkin;
This was her first remembrance from the Moor.
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed me to steal it; but she so loves the token
(For he conjured her she should ever keep it0
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I’ll have the work ta’en out
And give’t Iago.
What he will do with it heaven knows, not I;
I nothing but to please his fantasy. (3.3)
Emilia evidences selfishness in this act: “What will you give me now / For that same handkerchief?” Since the climax of the play depends on this one weak act by Emilia, it is obvious