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The Character of Emilia in Othello

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The Character of Emilia in Othello

The definition of Renaissance women is fundamentally important in William Shakespeare's play Othello. One of the major causes of Othello's tragedy is his belief that Desdemona is not chaste. According to the men of the Renaissance, chastity, silence, and obedience are three attributes that define Renaissance women. Although Othello takes place during the Renaissance, the women in the play, Bianca, Desdemona and Emilia, defy traditional norms by lacking at least one of the major attributes defining women; Bianca's lack of chastity is clearly displayed when she unlawfully sleeps with Cassio; Desdemona's lack of silence is clearly displayed when she constantly urges Othello to give Cassio's position back. However, in the last two acts, Emilia displays the strongest challenge to the definition of Renaissance women as silent, chaste, and obedient, mainly to defend Desdemona.

First, in order to defend Desdemona's chastity, Emilia challenges the societal norm of silence. Recall the incident when Othello calls Desdemona a "whore" for cheating. In response, Emilia protests loudly against Othello and attempts to disprove his belief that Desdemona is not chaste: "A halter pardon him [Othello]! And hell gnaw his bones! / Why should he call her [Desdemona] whore? (4.2. 143,144). Instead of Emilia conforming to the attribute of Renaissance women as silent, she condemns Othello for his false accusations against her mistress, Desdemona. Later in the play, after finding Desdemona killed, Emilia challenges silence again: "As ignorant as dirt! Thou hast done a deed-... / The Moor hath killed my mistress!" (5.2. 171,174). Although Othello tells Emilia that it would be "best" for her to remain silent, she ignores his request and ridicules him for killing "sweet" Desdemona (5.2. 169).

Secondly, Emilia mentally challenges the social norm of chastity by condoning women that deceive their husbands. Although Emilia does not explicitly state whether she has ever cheated, she does say that she would not cheat for small, material wealth, but any woman would cheat in order to make her husband king: "Who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? (4.3. 77). Furthermore, Emilia explains that the reason women cheat is because their husbands "slack their duties" and "break out into peevish jealousies (4.3. 87, 89). In essence, Emilia accepts the "abuse" of men by women because she feels that it is the husband's flaws that evoke the women to cheat.
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