In today’s educational system, the use of Shakespeare as reading material has begun to dwindle. This is mostly due to people believing that the themes and ideas portrayed throughout the Shakespearean work are old, outdated, unrelated to the modern world. However, one of the biggest stories in politics and media nowadays are the ideals of the feminist movement which empowers women to find they’re voice on topics that matter to them. This theme can be seen throughout Shakespeares book Othello, predominantly in the character Emilia, who is the wife of the villain Iago.
Emilia portrays one of the biggest character shifts throughout the entirety of this play, which is seen mainly through the shifts in how she addresses her husband. She starts out very nieve and ditsy, then she begins to slowly realize that Iago is plotting something malicious and finally ends with her enraged at Iago for causing the murder of her best friend and finally finding her voice to speak her opinions and thoughts. Emilia is portrayed at the beginning of the play as someone who is unaware of what is happening around her and unable to take care of herself. All she wanted to do was to please her husband and she would go through any lengths to ensure that happened. This can be seen in many different places throughout the beginning of the play.
Specifically in an encounter that Emilia has with her husband, moments after she has retrieved Desdemona’s beloved handkerchief. Emilia says, “EMILIA: “I am glad I have found this napkin: / This was her first remembrance from the Moor: / My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Woo’d me to steal it; but she so loves the token, / For he conjured her she should ever keep it, / 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). In this passage, Emilia understands how important this “napkin” is to Desdemona but also wishes first and foremost to please her husband in any way that she can. At this point, Emilia does not understand why her husband has asked to take the but she knows that it will make him happy. Later in the same scene, Emilia takes the handkerchief to her husband where she then states, “EMILIA: If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give’t me again: poor lady, she’ll run mad / When she shall lack it. IAGO: Be not acknown on ‘t; I have use for it. / Go, leave me” (3,3).
In this dialogue, we can see that Emilia still does not understand Iago’s need for this handkerchief so she kindly asks that if he does not have a reason to keep it, to give it back to her so she can return it to Desdemona. Iago refuses, however, and Emilia does not question him with fear that she will upset him. Both of these quotes portray Emilia as very innocent and naive, with no understanding of the hurt she is about to cause. This is similar to how women, especially back in the 1800s were perceived. They were looked upon as only needing to please their spouse, nothing more and nothing less. Women did not need to think for themselves or understand their husband’s reasoning, they just were expected to go along with it. As the play progresses, the reader then begins to see this shift in Emilia. She is beginning to say things that are more insightful to Desdemona in relation to the handkerchief and trying to cheer her up rather than just trying to appeal to her husband. She is beginning to realize that her words can have an impact and begins to have a voice against men in general. This can be seen in the exchange between Desdemona and Emilia right after Othello found out about the handkerchief and suspected his wife to be cheating.
They say, “DESDEMONA: I ne’er saw this before. / Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief: / I am most unhappy in the loss of it. / EMILIA: ‘Tis, not a year or two shows us a man: / They are all but stomachs, and we all but food; / To eat us hungerly, and when they are full, / They belch us” (3,4). This is the first time that the reader sees Emilia speaking ill of men and foreshadowing the change that is coming between her and her husband. She says that to men, women are nothing but food to eat and please them until they are full, then they get rid of them. This scene continues and the reader can see another encounter where Emilia speaks out for herself and her own thoughts. She says, “EMILIA: Pray heaven it be state-matters, as you think, / And no conception nor no jealous toy / Concerning you. DESDEMONA: Alas the day! I never gave him cause. EMILIA: But jealous souls will not be answer’d so; / They are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they are jealous: ’tis a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3,4).
In this part of the scene, we see Emilia comforting Desdemona and ensuring her that they must pray against jealousy for Othello because when men become jealous, they also become like monsters with no control over them except themselves. Both of the quotes show that Emilia is beginning to speak her mind and allowing herself to have thoughts of her own that she shares, not only ones to please her husband, but also please her best friend and herself. This strongly relates to women’s rights movement and how in the beginning, women that spoke out for voting, divorce, property rights, etc. were looked down upon or seen as flighty and unreliable. However, as the movement grew, more and more women were able to find their voices and speak on the topics that they found important. In the final scene of Othello, we see Emilia has come to her wit’s end with the terrible things her husband has been plotting. She realizes, after seeing Desdemona dead on the floor, that all of these things were caused by the handkerchief she had retrieved for Iago. She now is beginning to speak out for herself and her friend against her husband rather than in his favor. In Act 5, Scene 2 the reader sees this exchange between Emilia and Gratiano, “EMILIA: O, are you come, Iago? you have done well, / That men must lay their murders on your neck. GRATIANO: What is the matter? EMILIA: Disprove this villain, if thou be’st a man: / He says thou told’st him that his wife was false: / I know thou didst not, thou’rt not such a villain: / Speak, for my heart is full.”. This scene shows that now Emilia has put all the pieces of Iago’s malicious plan together and reports him so that he may be arrested. She tells Gratiano everything that she nows pertaining to her husband and the relation between him and the murder. This scene then continues on to Emilia confronting her husband and saying, “EMILIA: Villany, villany, villany! / I think upon’t, I think: I smell’t: O villany!– / I thought so then:–I’ll kill myself for grief:– / O villany, villany! IAGO: What, are you mad? I charge you, get you home. EMILIA: Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak: / ‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now. / Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home” (5,2). Emilia now is finally able to speak her peace to Iago and has found her own personal voice, a voice that speaks against her husband and the terrible things that he has done, rather in his favor and to please him. Emilia loved her best friend and eventually realized that the simple thing she did in an effort to make Iago happy had caused the death of her beloved friend, Desdemona.
Both of the quotes work together to show that Emilia no longer feels that she has to answer to her husband but rather can say what she believes and reveal what she knows is true about the situation. In today’s society and media, women have a much larger platform in which they can share their voice and their opinions. One of the biggest examples of this is women speaking out on twitter about the Me Too movement. This was sparked when women in Hollywood shared how they had been sexually assaulted by men in television but were threatened if they ever shared what had happened to them. Women who had a big name in show business began to speak up about their experiences with his terrible crime which ignited this movement of women, whether a public figure or not, using their voices to share their experiences and finally feel like they could talk about what had happened and get help if they wanted it. Emilia is the perfect example, in the shift of how she speaks to and about her husband, of what women finding their voices looks like. She starts out only wanting her husband to always be happy, she then begins to understand that her thought do not only have to revolve around her husband’s happiness, and finally, the play ends with her speaking out against Iago and the crimes he has committed or caused.
Emilia was a character that many readers underestimate in the beginning, however, as the play progress, it is easier and easier for readers to relate and support her and her growth. Othello, while not being a book written for women’s rights movements, shows a lot of those themes throughout. The idea of women understanding what they believe and feeling to freedom to share that is a very common idea in this book and in today’s society.