Emilia, Iago's wife, Desdemona's waiting gentlewoman

After it's decided that Desdemona will go to Cyprus, too, but that Othello must leave immediately, he instructs Iago to stay behind for a day in order to carry papers from the Senate and also to escort Desdemona to Cyprus. He says, "Honest Iago, / My Desdemona must I leave to thee: / I prithee, let thy wife attend on her" (1.3.294-296). Othello's request is as a good as a command and Emilia becomes Desdemona's companion and servant. At the end of the scene, in Iago's soliloquy, he says "it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets / He has done my office" (1.3.387-388). "Abroad" means "everywhere," and Iago's "office" (function) between his sheets is to have sex with his wife. Iago is saying that everyone thinks that Othello is having an affair with Iago's wife. The rest of the play makes it clear that none of this is true; Othello and Iago's wife are not even vaguely interested in one another, and no one thinks otherwise. [Scene Summary]

When Emilia arrives in Cyprus with Desdemona, Cassio welcomes her and then says to Iago, "Let it not gall your patience, good Iago, / That I extend my manners; 'tis my breeding / That gives me this bold show of courtesy" (2.1.97-99). Whereupon Cassio kisses Emilia. Emilia doesn't say anything to Cassio, but if she's shocked, she recovers enough to join in some joking between Desdemona and Iago. At the end of the scene, in Iago's soliloquy, he repeats his suspicion that Emilia is having an affair with Othello, and also says, "I fear Cassio with my night-cap too" (2.1.307). [Scene Summary]

After he persuades Cassio to appeal to Desdemona to get his job back, Iago plans to convince Othello that Desdemona is doing it because she is having an affair with Cassio. Fleshing out his plans, he says, "My wife must move for Cassio to her mistress -- / I'll set her on" (2.3.383-384). However, there isn't a scene in which Iago tells Emilia to plead Cassio's case to Desdemona, and when we next see Emilia she's telling Cassio that Desdemona is already pleading his case to Othello. [Scene Summary]

After Cassio has lost his job, he asks to speak to Emilia, so that she will arrange a meeting with Desdemona. When Emilia appears she says, full of sympathy and reassurance, "Good morrow, good Lieutenant: I am sorry / For your displeasure; but all will sure be well" (3.1.41-42). "Your displeasure" is the displeasure of Othello into which Cassio has fallen. Emilia explains that Desdemona is already speaking up for Cassio's reinstatement, but Cassio still wants to talk with Desdemona, and Emilia invites him in. [Scene Summary]

At the opening of Act 3, Scene 3, we see Desdemona, Cassio and Emilia. Cassio has apparently already made his request to Desdemona, who is saying, "Be thou assured, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf" (3.3.1-2). Emilia encourages her, saying, "Good madam, do: I warrant it grieves my husband, / As if the case were his" (3.3.4), and Desdemona responds, "O, that's an honest fellow" (3.3.5). Pity for Cassio leads Desdemona to make a bold promise, saying "before Emilia here / I give thee warrant of thy place" (3.3.19-20). A "warrant" is a legally binding promise, and that's why Desdemona says "before Emilia here." Emilia is the witness that Desdemona has personally guaranteed that Cassio will get his job back. When Othello appears, Cassio leaves, but Emilia is present as Desdemona pleads Cassio's cause.

Later in the scene, Desdemona, accompanied by Emilia, comes to call Othello to dinner. Othello, choked up with jealousy, makes the excuse that he has a headache, and Desdemona tries to bind his head with her handkerchief, but Othello impatiently pushes it away. Emilia sees the handkerchief fall and stays to pick it up. She's glad she's found it because it's precious to Desdemona and because, as she says, "My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Woo'd me to steal it" (3.3.292-293). (You probably shouldn't ask yourself when Iago asked Emilia to steal the handkerchief. He could have done it during the sea voyage from Venice to Cyprus, but that would mean he had his whole plan mapped out before he arrived in Cyprus, which doesn't seem to be true.) Emilia knows that the handkerchief was Othello's first gift to Desdemona, and that she always keeps it with her, "To kiss and talk to" (3.3.296). Perhaps this is the reason that Emilia hasn't stolen the handkerchief, and even now she means to give it back to Desdemona. Emilia says she will "have the work ta'en out, / And give't Iago" (3.3.296-297). She means that she will have handkerchief copied and give the copy to Iago, even though she has no idea what he wants with it.

However, Emilia doesn't have a chance to carry out her plan. Iago appears and Emilia hopes to please him by telling him about what she has just found. She says, "I have a thing for you" (3.3.301). Iago replies with a nasty joke, "A thing for me? it is a common thing--" (3.3.302). In guy-talk of Shakespeare's time a woman's "thing" was between her legs, and a "common thing" was one available to any man. When Emilia objects to the joke, Iago changes it to an ordinary insult by saying that it's a common thing to have a foolish wife.

Despite Iago's bad treatment of her, Emilia still wants to please him, and she tells him that she has found Desdemona's handkerchief. Iago immediately tells her to give it to him, and when she asks what he wants with it, he snatches it from her. She protests, "If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give't me again: poor lady, she'll run mad / When she shall lack it" (3.3.316-318). But Iago doesn't give it back. He tells Emilia to keep her mouth shut about it and he sends her away. [Scene Summary]

When Desdemona asks, "Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?" (3.4.23), she answers, "I know not, madam" (3.4.24), which is a lie. And when Desdemona says that the loss of the handkerchief would be enough to make Othello jealous, if he were the jealous type, Emilia asks, "Is he not jealous?" (3.4.29), which seems to indicate that she doubts that Othello couldn't be jealous. Emilia then watches as Othello comes in, berates Desdemona about the handkerchief, and leaves in the heat of anger. As soon as he's gone, Emilia says, "Is not this man jealous?" (3.4.99). A little later, when Desdemona is trying to make herself believe that Othello is upset by some problem at work and is just taking his frustrations out on her, Emilia again suggests that Othello may be jealous. When Desdemona declares that she has never given her husband any reason to be jealous, Emilia offers some wisdom about the nature of jealousy; she tells Desdemona that jealousy doesn't need a cause; "It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself" (3.4.161-162). Nevertheless, Desdemona refuses to believe that Othello could be jealous.

Why doesn't Emilia say what she knows about the handkerchief? We might think that she would, even though she wouldn't want to admit that she gave Desdemona's precious handkerchief to Iago. After all, she sees the great fuss that Othello makes about handkerchief and comes to the conclusion that he is jealous. Furthermore, she's loyal to Desdemona, which is shown at the end of the play when she dies defending Desdemona's honor by telling the truth about the handkerchief. So why is she silent now?

A cynical answer would that if Emilia did tell Desdemona now, the play would be a lot shorter, and not a tragedy. However, Emilia's silence is more than a mere plot device. Despite what she has just seen, she doesn't seem to make the connection between Iago and Othello's jealousy. This may be because she has such a low of opinion of men that Othello's jealousy seems almost normal. In this scene she expresses her opinion of men by joking that "'Tis not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us" (3.4.103-106). Also, later in the play we learn that Iago has accused her of having an affair with Othello, which is pure fantasy on Iago's part. Thus, in her mind, men are strange creatures who are likely to get jealous for no reason at all.

Another reason she doesn't make the connection between Othello's jealousy and Iago is that she -- like everyone else in the play -- puts absolute trust in "honest" Iago. In the last scene of the play, when Othello tells her that Iago has told him that Desdemona gave the handkerchief to Cassio, Emilia refuses to believe it until the moment that Iago himself confirms it. [Scene Summary]

Even after he has decided the time and place of Desdemona's death, Othello seems to need more proof of her guilt, so he questions Emilia about Desdemona and Cassio. He asks, "You have seen nothing then?" (4.2.1), and Emilia answers that not only has she seen nothing, she has never suspected anything. Othello, however, continues to question her, asking if she's seen Cassio and Desdemona whisper, or if Desdemona ever sent Emilia away when Cassio was there. Emilia not only says that nothing of the sort ever happened, she stands up for Desdemona, saying, "I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest, / Lay down my soul at stake" (4.2.12-13).

Othello, however believes that Emilia is lying, and he proceeds to speak to her as though she were the madam of a whorehouse in which Desdemona is a whore. After Othello has left, Emilia expresses her outrage at his treatment of Desdemona, saying to husband, "Alas, Iago, my lord hath so bewhored her. / Thrown such despite and heavy terms upon her, / As true hearts cannot bear" (4.2.115-117). She also comes very close to guessing the truth of the matter. She believes that someone has put ideas into Othello's head and says, "I will be hang'd, if some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging [cheating], cozening [deceiving] slave, to get some office, / Have not devised this slander; I will be hang'd else" (4.2.130-133). She is sure that someone must be pouring poison into Othello's ear because she has been a victim of something similar. As she says to Iago, "Some such squire he was / That turn'd your wit the seamy side without, / And made you to suspect me with the Moor" (4.2.145-147). Emilia has gotten it more than half right, but she doesn't know that it is her husband Iago who is the "eternal villain" who is poisoning Othello's mind against Desdemona, and who poisoned his own mind against his own wife. [Scene Summary]

After the state dinner in honor of Lodovico, Emilia--full of concern for Desdemona--asks her how it's going with Othello: "How goes it now? he looks gentler than he did" (4.3.11). Desdemona tells Emilia, "He says he will return incontinent [immediately]: / He hath commanded me to go to bed, / And bade me to dismiss you" (4.3.12-14). In this context "dismiss" doesn't mean that Emilia is to be fired from her job; it just means that Othello doesn't want her with Desdemona when he returns. However, that is enough to alarm Emilia, who exclaims, "Dismiss me?" (4.3.14). Desdemona, however, does not share Emilia's attitude and prepares for bed.

Later in the scene, Desdemona is wondering about women who have affairs and asks Emilia, "Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?" (4.3.64). Emilia, who doesn't see the world as Desdemona does, replies, "Why, would not you?" (4.3.65). Desdemona exclaims, "No, by this heavenly light!" (4.3.65), and Emilia makes a joke: "Nor I neither by this heavenly light; / I might do't as well i' the dark" (4.3.66-67). Emilia goes on to offer the opinion that "I do think it is their husbands' faults / If wives do fall" (4.3.86-87). She says that if men sleep around, or get jealous for no reason, or hit their wives, or take away their wives' household spending money, those men should remember that their sweet wives can get resentful and take revenge. Furthermore:
                         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. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.   (4.3.93-103)
Desdemona has been talking as though having an affair was the most horrible thing imaginable; Emilia's point is that men do it all the time, just for fun, or for love, or because they give in to temptation. And if men "change us for others," their wives will learn to do the same, because women are just like men. [Scene Summary]

At the end of the scene in which Roderigo was supposed to kill Cassio, but only wounds him, and is himself killed by Iago, Emilia enters. She asks Iago, "Alas, what's the matter? what's the matter, husband?" (5.1.111). Iago explains, of course without mentioning that he caused it all, then tries to pin everything on Bianca. He tells Emilia to go find out where Cassio had supper, then asks Bianca if that worries her. Bianca declares that Cassio had supper with her, and she's not worried about it. Emilia calls her a "strumpet," and Bianca replies that she's just as honest as Emilia, which outrages Emilia, who exclaims, "As I! foh! fie upon thee!" (5.1.123). Iago then sends Emilia to deliver the news to Othello and Desdemona, just as though he didn't know that Othello is on his way to kill Desdemona. [Scene Summary]

Moments after Othello begins to smother Desdemona, Emilia calls from the other side of the locked door: "My lord, my lord! what, ho! my lord, my lord!" (5.2.85). Shortly after Othello lets Emilia into the room, Desdemona revives and cries out from behind the bed curtain, "O, falsely, falsely murder'd!" (5.2.117). Emilia asks what that was, and Othello again pretends total ignorance. "That? what?" (5.2.118), he says, as though he hadn't even heard anything. However, Emilia isn't put off. She recognizes Desdemona's voice, opens the bed curtains, and starts calling for help. Emilia also asks Desdemona who has done this to her, and Desdemona replies that she did it herself, then dies. Othello then says that he killed Desdemona because she was a whore. Emilia immediately springs to Desdemona's defense: "O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!" (5.2.130-131). Still trying to justify himself, Othello answers, "She turn'd to folly, and she was a whore" (5.2.132). Emilia shoots back, "Thou dost belie her, and thou art a devil" (5.2.133).

When Othello tells Emilia that it was Iago who told him that Desdemona was unfaithful, Emilia is disbelieving. Four times she asks if it was really her husband that said these things, and finally she says, "If he say so, may his pernicious soul / Rot half a grain a day! he lies to the heart: / She was too fond of her most filthy bargain" (5.2.155-157). By "filthy bargain" Emilia means Desdemona's marriage to Othello. Insulted, Othello makes a threatening gesture, but Emilia defies him and again calls for help.

When Emilia's cry for help is answered by Iago and others, Emilia says to her husband, "O, are you come, Iago? you have done well, / That men must lay their murders on your neck" (5.2.169-170). She then demands that Iago deny he ever said anything about Desdemona being false. Iago, however, confirms that he did say that Desdemona was false. Emilia then denounces her husband, even though he repeatedly tells her to shut up and go home. Iago even tries to use his sword on Emilia, but she defies him, too, and reveals what she knows about the handkerchief.

Emilia's courage costs her her life. When Othello realizes the truth, he attacks Iago, but is restrained. In the confusion Iago stabs Emilia and runs away. Emilia dies by Desdemona's side. She says to Desdemona, "What did thy song bode [prophesy], lady? / Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan. / And die in music" (5.2.246-248). According to legend, the swan would sing as it died, and as she dies Emilia sings the "willow" song which Desdemona sang and which foretold Desdemona's death. It is as though Emilia, lying beside Desdemona and singing her song, is Desdemona's voice from beyond the grave. That voice then speaks to Othello: "Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor; / So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true; / So speaking as I think, alas, I die" (5.2.249-251). [Scene Summary]