Female Empowerment Emilia in Othello
Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women. -Maya Angelou
In Othello, by William Shakespeare, there are numerous characters that display strength and power. While there are only three female characters, each has distinct qualities and a significant role in the play. Among these female characters, Emilia is the most empowered and influential. Throughout Othello, Emilia is portrayed as the strongest female character because she has the power to be honest and persuasive even in difficult situations.
The fact that Emilia questions aspects of her relationship with Iago goes against the social norms of the time. Once Emilia realizes that Iago had a role in Desdemona’s murder, she angrily declares, If he say so, may his pernicious soul/ Rot half a grain a day! He lies to th’heart./ She was too fond of her most filthy bargain (5.2.154-156). Emilia discerns a darker side of marriage, which is typically regarded as a holy bond. Even though Iago is her husband, Emilia acknowledges that he should be held accountable for his actions and is distraught that he would commit such an act. Emilia challenges, Disprove this villain, if thou be’st a man./ He says thou told’st him his wife was false./ I know thou didst not, thou’rt not such a villain./ Speak, for my heart is full (5.2.171-174). She is challenging Iago’s honesty by demanding that he tell her the events leading up to Desdemona’s murder. Emilia confronts Iago by declaring, You told a lie, an odious damned lie:/ Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!/ She false with Cassio? Did you say with Cassio? (5.2.179-181) She questions Iago’s honesty and integrity in the presence of characters who trust him. Even though it’s an uncommon stance, Emilia refuses to put her full trust in Iago and publicly disputes him on his lack of morality. She makes conscious decisions and judgments with regard to her relationship. That separates her from other women.
Emilia recognizes a double standard in how men are penalized less severely than women for engaging in infidelity. When Desdemona ponders whether unfaithful women exist, Emilia not only says that they do, but also states, […] I do think it is their husbands’ faults/ If wives do fall (4.3.82-83). Emilia is able to form her own opinions rather than agreeing with the rigid views shared by most members of society. While Desdemona seems shocked by the prospect of female infidelity, Emilia says that women have the same needs as men. She adds, 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 (4.3.89-92). Emilia doesn’t support infidelity, but she notices that women who engage in infidelity have far more dire consequences than men who do the same. Othello kills Desdemona for alleged infidelity, but a woman would never kill a man, even for confirmed infidelity. In addition, Emilia tells Desdemona, Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition. But for the whole world! Why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? (4.3.69-72) For such a profit as great as the world, Emilia herself would engage in infidelity. She believes that women should have the right to choose the same way men do.
Emilia displays an immense amount of courage when she chooses truth over obedience to Iago. When Emilia discovers what Iago did and is trying to alert the others, he orders, Zounds, hold your peace! (5.2.217) Emilia does the opposite and exclaims vociferously, Twill out, twill out. I peace!/ No, I will speak as liberal as the north;/ Let heaven, and men, and devils, let them all,/ All, all cry against me, yet I’ll speak (5.2.217-220). Emilia is driven to share her knowledge, even though it forces her to contradict her husband. She reveals, O thou dull Moor, that handkerchief thou speak’st of/ I found by fortune and did give my husband,/ For often, with a solemn earnestness […] He begged of me to steal it (5.2.223-227). Emilia shares the truth about Iago’s wrongdoing even though it seals her fate. In her dying breath, Emilia says, Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor;/ So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true;/ So speaking as I think, I die, I die (5.2.247-249). Even as Emilia dies, she continues to express her truth. After bringing the truth to light, Emilia meets the same fate as Desdemona. Emilia exhibits tremendous courage in challenging her husband and suffers the consequences for her defiance.
Emilia demonstrates her strength by acting in accordance with her values throughout Othello. Emilia defies social standards with her distrust of Iago and her willingness to publicly confront him about his dishonesty. She observes the injustice in how women are more harshly punished than men for engaging in infidelity. Emilia displays an extreme amount of bravery when she chooses to oppose Iago in order to bring the truth to light.
- Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Othello: 1622. Oxford :Clarendon Press, 1975. Print.
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