Emilia at first appears to be one of her husband Iago’s puppets. When Iago wants to set up the appearance of inappropriate behavior between Cassio and Desdemona, he decides that “my wife must move for Cassio to her mistress” (2.3.) and shortly thereafter Emilia facilitates a meeting between Desdemona and Cassio, and encourages her mistress to advocate on behalf of Cassio. Later, when Desdemona accidentally drops her handkerchief, Emilia seizes the opportunity to pick it up, noting that “my wayward husband hath a hundred times / Wooed me to steal it” (3.3.). She shows only a small amount of suspicion as to what Iago plans to do with it, and accepts his refusal to tell her. These actions suggest that Emilia, at least initially, is at best passive, and at worst complicit in Iago’s schemes. He often speaks sharply or rudely to her, as when he quips “It is a common thing… to have a foolish wife” (3.3.) suggesting he doesn’t respect her intelligence.
However, as the action progresses, Emilia reveals a sharp-eyed and self-aware perspective on how women are often vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their husbands. She tells Desdemona that “they eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us” (3.4.) and later explains to her mistress that “I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall” (4.3.). Emilia also shows courage and self-assurance in chastising Othello for doubting his wife’s virtue, scolding him “If you think other / Remove your thought” (4.2.). When she realizes Othello has killed Desdemona, Emilia immediately lashes out at him, stating “Thou dost belie her and thou art a devil” (5.2.). Even though she is in a highly dangerous situation, alone with a man who has just proven himself capable of murder and might well kill her in order to conceal his crime, Emilia fearlessly insists on bringing him to justice, explaining “I’ll make thee known / Though I lost twenty lives” (5.2.).
As she realizes the role her husband has played in bringing about Desdemona’s death, Emilia insists on outing Iago’s plot, stating in front of everyone that “your reports have set the murder on” (5.2.184). Iago repeatedly threatens her and tells her to be quiet, but Emilia insists that “I will speak as liberal as the north” (5.2.). Her insistence on speaking out costs her her life when Iago stabs her in desperation. Emilia becomes a parallel to Desdemona, as another woman killed by her husband for insisting on a truth that he did not want to hear. However, while Desdemona’s death reflects the murder of an innocent victim, Emilia dies seeking atonement for her participation in Iago’s crimes. Emilia helped Iago persuade Othello of Desdemona’s guilt, and while she cannot undo Desdemona’s death, she can at least bear witness to the truth of what really happened. Emilia dies hoping that her final bravery will redeem her previous silence and obedience: “So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true” (5.2.), but her death also shows that within the world of the play, there is no promise of a happy fate for a woman.