Emilia and Desdemona: "Othello" characters more similar than you think

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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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Comments 8 comments

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 8 years ago from The Other Bangor

Interesting topic. I've never understood how Emilia could have no idea at all what her husband's true nature really was -- in that wonderful interchange between her and Othello after Desdemona's murder, she repeatedly asks "My husband?" -- sincerely incredulous that Iago could have been the perpetrator of such evil intent. You help me understand it, however, when you point to the parallel between Emilia and Desdemona.

Shakespeare employed parallels, foils, and symmetries in characterization as well as in the placement of scenes. Thus, I can better understand Emilia's ignorance of Iago's duplicity -- it simply wasn't in her grasp of the realm of possibility. Desdemona is not by any means a timid girl; but it just so happens that her upbringing has limited her experiences and consequently even her vocabulary: she can not repeat the word "whore" after Othello calls her one. It is simply not in her realm of experience.

Interesting parallel between Emilia standing up to Othello and Desdemona standing up to her father. They are both strong women -- great parts for any actor -- but still, were I able to choose, I would rather play Emilia, as she has some of the funniest lines of the play. The "Willow" scene is poignant because it employs the contrast between their personalities, Desdemona's sheltered lack of worldliness in direct opposition to Emilia's more down-to-earth, bawdy humor.

Thanks for a good hub, Glassvisage!


Katherine 7 years ago

Desdemona doesn't say "I never knew / A Florentine more kind and honest." Cassio does.


Reena Daruwalla profile image

Reena Daruwalla 7 years ago from INDIA

You are quite correct in your assessment. I have also 'oft' wondered at Shakespeare's portrayals of women; he showed them as ninnies quite often.

And I often wonder what kind of a reception The Taming of the Shrew would have got had it been written during our times :)


Vivi 7 years ago

I think the opinions expressed here are really good. By showing the similsrity between Desdemona and Emilia it shows Emilia's character andreason for ignorance really well. I'm playing Emilia in the school play and this has helped me to understand her character and role much better.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California Author

Thank you all for your in-depth comments!


Real Estate Lady profile image

Real Estate Lady 7 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

I love Desdemona. A 17th century woman with 21st century attitudes a lot of the time. She is my favorite of Shakespeare's women.


Alex Saavedra 4 years ago

who's Emilia? is she a characer from another movie or book? i need help !


Arzu 3 years ago

there is debate over Iago's mteivos he mentions that it is rumored that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia plus Othello passes over Iago for the promotion but really, Iago's actions are all out of scope he is, I think, a sociopath, to say the least (plus he's deliciously evil)Iago has to remain close for his machinations to work don't you think?Iago and Roderigo are looking to get Othello in trouble they know that Barbantio won't approve of the marriage .it is the start of the master planRodergio has long had a crush on Desdemona even though Barbantio thinks he's a foolBarbantio goes over the council's sense of respect for Othello and looks to act without governmental intervention really, I promise, you should read this play it's one of Shakes' best and Iago really is a wonderful villain the film with Branagh isn't too bad but you gotta read it (unless you can see it on stage always the BEST way) to fully appreciate Iago's cunning happy reading!

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