Desdemona and Emilia: The testament of female friendship in Othello

Desdemona and Emilia
Desdemona (Janie Brookshire) and Emilia (Karen Peakes) in Othello at Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

In Othello, male friendship is an agent of destruction. Early modern discourses of friendship elevated the bond between two men above all else, but in Shakespeare’s tragedy, master manipulator Iago marshals the privilege of so-called ‘counselor’ and ‘friend’ to turn Othello against Desdemona, and to destroy them both. In contrast, the play’s central female friendship between Desdemona and Emilia inspires resistance and the courage to speak the truth, resulting in Iago’s exposure and Desdemona’s exoneration. Friendship offers protection, solace, and—finally—redemption as Desdemona and Emilia struggle to navigate and survive in a violent, male-dominated world.

Navigating Expectations as Wives

Emilia and Desdemona are fundamentally ‘unlike:’ maidservant and gentlewoman, older and younger, sexually experienced and naïve. But the qualities they share are more important than what sets them apart: both are wives and women, isolated and alone in a foreign land at war. Desdemona and Emilia turn to each other for companionship and comfort, and discover an equal in intelligence, virtue, loyalty, and generosity. As the play progresses, the bond between Desdemona and Emilia is strengthened by shared experiences of abuse and increasing fear of male violence.

The two women are expected to obey and submit to their husbands in exchange for financial security and protection, but as Othello’s jealousy builds it falls to Emilia to educate Desdemona on the realities of married life:

EMILIA: ‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us. (III.iv.120-123)

Emilia is well-versed in the complexities and challenges of marriage, and she counsels her young, privileged, and inexperienced friend to reset her expectations, rid herself of idealistic fantasies, and to know her own worth. Othello’s jealous turn is inevitable, a symptom of manhood itself; it need not destroy Desdemona. Men are greedy and predictable, but women are clever, funny, and resilient; they are survivors. Emilia herself offers a symbol of hope: years trapped in an abusive marriage have not robbed her of wit or strength. Emilia represents what Desdemona might become: a wife whose individual character and identity remain intact.

The Willow Song and Emilia’s Feminist Response

As the world Desdemona thought she understood and the man she thought she loved unravels, and the play descends into violent madness, Emilia’s friendship represents a lifeline for Desdemona.

Desdemona singing the willow song
Desdemona … the poor soul sat singing, sing willow, willow, willow, Othello, act IV, scene 3 [graphic] / H. Singleton pinx. ; C. Taylor direxit et sculpt. [London : C. Taylor, 1792] Folger ART File S528o1 no.45 copy 1
Desdemona’s despair culminates in Act IV, Scene iii—also known as the Willow Song scene—one of the few scenes in Shakespeare’s canon where women occupy the stage alone and unobserved.

The Willow Song scene provides a much-needed respite from chaos and violence as the wrenching, pure pain of Desdemona’s song underscores her innocence and fidelity. Affection for and duty to her friend inspires Emilia to speak freely and courageously, regardless of propriety or the threat of retaliation. She calls upon her role as friend to shake Desdemona from all-encompassing despair and to mount an attack on pervasive, insidious male hypocrisy: ‘I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall’ (IV.iii.84-85). She goes on:

EMILIA:              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. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well. Else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. (IV.iii.97-115)

Emilia’s speech represents a powerful feminist perspective, elucidated at a time when women were subordinated and oppressed as a matter of course—legally, socially, and politically. To Emilia, women and men (husbands and wives) are equal on the basis of humanity: both have ‘senses’ that need feeding, bodies that need care and healing, ‘desires,’ ‘affections,’ and ‘frailties.’ Emilia’s speech is designed to cure Desdemona of her imagined guilt for failing to meet the unfair, unrealistic expectations of female behavior in marriage. Emilia encourages Desdemona to regard herself as Emilia does: as an individual worthy of love, life, and respect.

Desdemona’s Death and Emilia’s Defense

Desdemona draws strength from Emilia as a friend, protector, healer, and would-be savior—but Emilia cannot save her. Ultimately, Desdemona dies at Othello’s hands, begging for a few more minutes, for one more prayer, for the right to die with an unburdened soul; she fights to be seen as the faithful, innocent woman (and friend) she is, rather than as a ‘strumpet’ (V.ii.97). Othello does not merely murder Desdemona, he silences her: he robs Desdemona of breath, and the ability to speak the words that would exonerate and liberate her. Her voice passes instead to Emilia, and she endows Emilia with the exalted power to speak truth, as only true friends can.

Emilia confronting Othello
William Salter. Othello’s Lamentation. Oil on canvas, ca. 1857. Folger FPa50

Desdemona’s murder moves Emilia to take the stage and attack the men that wrought these horrors, privileging the loyalty and true speech of friendship over her personal safety:

EMILIA: Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. O gull! O dolt,
As ignorant as dirt! Thou hast done a deed—
I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known,
Though I lost twenty lives. (V.ii.197-202)

Othello’s violent ‘power’ pales in comparison to the bond of love between Emilia and Desdemona, and the pain of loss transcends Emilia’s care for physical safety. Her faith and love for Desdemona command her to expose Othello and to redeem Desdemona as an ‘angel,’ ‘heavenly true,’ ‘the sweetest innocent / That e’er did lift up eye’ (V.ii.161; V.ii.66; V.ii.236-237). Emilia’s true speech uncovers the ‘Villainy, villainy, villainy!’ at the core of Othello and Iago’s friendship, and condemns Othello’s evil deeds (V.ii.226). Emilia’s body, like Desdemona’s, is destroyed by vindictive male violence, but her spirit is purified by Desdemona’s redemption: ‘Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor. / So come my soul to bliss as I speak true’ (V.ii.299-300).

Othello and Emilia
Othello, Emilia: She loved thee, cruel Moor [graphic] / Louis Rhead. Folger ART Box R469 no.95 (size L)
Emilia and Desdemona’s bodies haunt those that remain onstage: a testament to friendship between women and witness to the dangerous threat of false, faithless friendship among men. Death and destruction are tragedy’s inevitable end, but female friendship in Othello retains its power even in death. Their bodies lying side by side, Desdemona and Emilia recall fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English monuments and tombs carved with images of male friends who chose to spend eternity buried together, cementing a bond more sacred than blood or marriage. In Othello, female friends inherit the legacy of friendship’s power in early modern culture: Desdemona and Emilia are protectors from slander, defenders of honor, and the only speakers of truth.

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