Compare and contrast Desdemona and Emilia in Othello by Shakespeare
The importance of this scene illustrates how truly innocent Desdemona is, innocent of the crime of adultery, which she has been wrongly accused, by her husband, Othello and innocent in regard to the ways of the world. If Desdemona doubts whether women are capable of cheating, this shows how distant she is from committing such an act. The whole scene is an exchange of thoughts and feelings between Desdemona and Iago’s wife, Emilia, regarding the act of infidelity.
There is an acute sadness to Desdemona’s declaration of fidelity between herself and her husband, Othello, as the whole scene is foreshadowed by the tragic events that are to happen in Act 5 Scene 2.
Previously, in the same scene, Desdemona was ordered to bed by her husband, Othello ‘Get you to bed on the instant’ (Shakespeare, 2008  5.2.7). This, she does unquestioningly. This show of uncompromising duty towards her husbands every wish shows the reader how innocent she is as a wife in her mistaken belief that she is about to carry out her marital duties in the bedroom.
There are vastly conflicting ideas between Emilia and Desdemona regarding relationships and marriage throughout the remainder of this scene. It is Emilia’s almost cynical attitude to marriage that is shocking and has an almost contemporary, casual feel that is in total contrast to Desdemona’s view of what should constitute a happy marriage, ‘If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties’ (Shakespeare in A230 Assessment Guide, line 82).
Emilia’s idea of matrimony is in complete contrast to Desdemona. She is highly suspicious of men and believes the husband will always commit an act of marital betrayal first. However, Emilia’s speech at the very end of the scene in question, neatly counter-balances a speech that her husband, Iago gives in Act 2 about the inherent faults in wives. ‘You wake up to play and go to bed to work’
(2.1.130). There is a similar toughness of character in the way they both treat their respective subjects. Emilia seems to echo Iago’s pragmatic reasoning, she openly declares how far she would go to achieve personal gains from infidelity ‘I should venture purgatory for’t’ (line 72).
Throughout the scene, we are subject to Emilia’s thoughts and feelings. She clearly leads the conversation with her direct and confident attitude. Her responses to Desdemona’s innocently placed questions are bold and uncompromising. Emilia, is even heard to answer one of Desdemona’s questions with another question that is highly probing in its attitude ‘Why would not you?’ (Line 59). This slightly pertinent answer seems to break down the social boundaries between the servant and mistress.
There is little evidence of rhyming structure throughout the blank verse of the scene. Of the two, in evidence, it is Emilia’s that is the strongest with her line ‘The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price, for a small vice’ (line 64). This quite flippant remark extenuates the feeling of everyday conversion between the two ladies, but its is Emilia’s casual way in which she swiftly responds with this line that makes it look that little emotion was placed in the remark as she clearly feels that there is nothing wrong with her literal statement of fact and her possible intention to put this in effect, if called upon. Which we have already witnessed with her ability to misjudge her emotions through the finding of Desdemona’s handkerchief in Act 3 Scene 3
Shakespeare uses the elements of light and dark as a contrast between good and evil within the scene. When Desdemona declares her unwillingness to commit a sinful act of infidelity against her husband she responds ‘No, by this heavenly light!’ (Line 60). However, it is Emilia’s counter-response about her attitude to Chasity which is shocking ‘Nor I neither by this heavenly light; I might do’t as well i’ the dark’ (Lines 61-62). She blatantly negates Desdemona’s innocent use of the words heaven and light as she mimics her answer by adding that her infidelity would be carried out during the night which is a motif for evil or when a crime is often committed.
We can see more of Emilia’s strong character through the speech she makes towards the end of the scene when Desdemona does not fully understand how a woman could be dishonest. Emilia reveals the true extent of her character as she speaks about sexual matters that indicate a lack of sexual equality between men and women. This issue would have been highly controversial during Shakespeare’s time. Emilia justifies her views on equality by stating her reasons throughout her speech ‘or say they strike us’ (line 85). This indicates physical abuse would be a key reason for a woman, at that time, to be disloyal.
However, it is her slightly crude remark about men not being attentive to their wives that really shows how worldly-wise she is when she comments ‘say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps’ (lines 83-84). It is here that we have the strongest connotations about sexual matters. What she seems to imply is, if husbands have affairs, then it frees up any bond of matrimonial bliss between husband and wife and allows women the same equality to do as she pleases with regard to sexual relationships outside of married life.
It is interesting how the two characters interact with each other throughout the scene. All formality between them seems to be non-existent, their speech is casual, almost equal in status. Which we could perceive this as odd due to Desdemona being the wife of a military general and Emilia being a servant, ordered by Othello to assist his wife. The apparent lack of formality built into the scene by Shakespeare allow the two ladies to expose their true feelings.
There are moments when the characters appear to talk over each other. We can see evidence of this by the indentations used when Emilia says, ‘There be some such, no question’ (line 58) and ‘No, by this heavenly light’ (line 60). This is a grammatical term that may indicate speakers who finish each others sentences or speaking rapidly over each other to prove a point. I would perceive both characters wishing to do the latter as they both differ in their opinions.
As the language used by the two ladies is distinctively intimate, compared to other scenes, a director may allow a brief interlude of comedy. As the whole scene is about Desdemona being prepared for her husband to return, the physical interaction between the two actors could be played out by Emilia as a temptress trying to lure Desdemona away from her blinkered view of love and marriage. Emilia is seen to undress Desdemona, leaving her exposed, this is a moment of vulnerability between the two that could be explored further with them whispering to each other as though they were children, telling each other secrets. This would further expose how fragile their feelings are, in the same way, that children talk behind their hands, thinking that they can’t be heard. ‘No, by this heavenly light!’ (line 60) This line could be spoken giggling by Desdemona.
Alternatively, the scene could be acted out with Desdemona taking the lead, through her higher social status. When we look at the layout of the scene we witness exclamation marks after some of Desdemona’s lines. This usually indicates a line or word that could be spoken louder or with commanding force. As a role reversal to my previous suggestion, Desdemona could shout out ‘No, by this heavenly light!’ (line 60), to chastise Emilia as though she was being disrespectful.
At the start of the scene, we hear Desdemona say the line ‘O, these men, these men!’ (line 55),
The actor may well shout out this line in frustration due to her being dismissed by her husband!
Having seen two productions of Othello, in recent years, the first being the 1995 film with Lawrence Fishbourne. This production is classical in its style with the film set in what appears to be Venice, as the play was originally set. Desdemona is played like a demure lady that is in awe of her husband and is always respectful with Emilia portrayed as a sexual temptress. As a contrast, the 2013 National Theatre production with Adrian Lester as the lead sees Emilia cast as a soldier, alongside her military husband Iago. This production brings a bold strength to Emilia’s character as she sits outside with Desdemona during the scene in focus. Both of them sit on plastic chairs drinking from cans of beer. I felt this style of performance gave both characters an equality in status as though they were simply ‘comparing notes’ about men and their views on sexual equality.
There is also a lack of femininity from Emilia as she is as military in her approach as her husband is. She is also in military uniform, which indicates a sense of carefully planned determination.
These are only two versions that offer the viewer two slightly different character interpretations based on my observations of Act 4 Scene 3. This is a scene that is open for reinterpretation though setting but most importantly through the delivery of the lines by the actors. As we now live in a world of ‘cut and paste’ the constantly evolving attitude to productions should see even more varied performances to suit an ever-changing audience.
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