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Desdemona’s Honest Friend

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2022

Emma Smith
Affiliation:
University of Oxford
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Summary

Emilia is a cipher. Shakespeare repeatedly asks us to scrutinize her reticence: at the quayside; after she gives Iago the handkerchief; when she does not tell Desdemona where the handkerchief has gone; as she prepares Desdemona for bed. At the same time, Emilia is candid. Shakespeare repeatedly asks us to marvel at her outspokenness: after Othello interrogates Desdemona about the handkerchief; at the end of the ‘Willow’ scene; in the face of Iago’s threats after the truth of the handkerchief plot has been revealed. On the whole, critics have synthesized the competing demands of Emilia’s character into a sympathetic interpretation: if she errs in giving the handkerchief to Iago and concealing its whereabouts, she does so without malice (possibly under compulsion) and more than redeems herself when, in the final scene, she speaks out for the honesty of Desdemona and against the villainy of the men who have destroyed her. Often, Emilia’s relationship to Desdemona is characterized as one defined by loyalty, devotion, friendship and even love.2 Often, as well, her actions and speech are represented as circumscribed or overdetermined by the dramatic or social roles – lower-class foil to Desdemona, leery wife of a vicious husband, clear-eyed ‘shrew’ in a misogynist world – to which she is readily consigned.

Type
Chapter
Information
Shakespeare Survey 75
Othello
, pp. 166 - 179
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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