Emilia and Desdemona: "Othello" characters more similar than you think
Few would initially consider the characters of Emilia and Desdemona to be similar. One is the wife of the play's tragic hero; the other is betrothed to one of the greatest villains of all time. Pious Desdemona is a senator's daughter and lover of a noble Venetian captain while Emilia is wife to Othello's ensign. Desdemona is considered the naïve victim of greed and suspicion and Emilia is noted for her role in the deaths of many. However, Emilia does share certain significant qualities with her apparent counterpart, including both ignorance and true nobility.
Both characters exhibit a level of ignorance of the plots in play around them. Desdemona is oblivious of Iago's trap when she allows herself to be seen with Cassio as Iago reveals the sight to wary Othello; all the while Desdemona says of Iago, "I never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest." However, while Emilia is unaware of the harm she became involved in when Iago demanded she hand him Desdemona's handkerchief, she is bewildered by Othello's suspicions and says, "If any wretch have put this in your head, / Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse!"
Emilia and Desdemona do differ in perspective. Emilia demonstrates practicality by saying she would be willing to cheat on her husband, though "I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring...monarch." Her statement shows not just pragmatism but also loyalty and love for Iago as she would be willing to render herself vulnerable to the indignity of immorality for the well being of her husband.
Desdemona, on the other hand, is extremely idealistic in her views of love and faith. Desdemona claims "I do not think there is any such woman" and that one should "Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong." Most importantly, the fact that she married a black man, which was not just unheard of but scandalous in the late 16th century, apparently means little to Desdemona, who said of Othello, "That I did love the Moor to live with him..."
If loving Othello is idealistic, then Desdemona standing up to her senator father Brabantio proves her courageous. In accompanying Othello to Cyprus, she defies her father, who already scorns the "foul thief" for winning over Desdemona by supposedly binding her in "chains for magic..."
After seeing Desdemona's lifeless body after Othello killed her, Emilia proves her courage as well when she says, "I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak." Though threatened with her own husband's dagger, she retains her righteousness and "will speak as liberal as the north... speak."
Emilia and Desdemona differ in class level and basic perspective. In analyzing the play and the circumstances behind each action, however, the similarities between the two characters emerge. As in many Shakespeare plays, the women fall into their respective roles in the tragic plot.
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