Narrowing down a list of Shakespeare’s most memorable plays is a daunting task, but I feel comfortable stating that Othello would make the cut. Othello is a play rich with scenery and plot twists that draw a reader in not only for its main characters, but also for its minor support characters. Left to their own devices, Othello and Desdemona would have been a happy couple until the end, and that does not make for a good tragedy. No character did more to ensure the tragic demise of this loving couple more than Iago. Iago’s single minded drive to seek revenge on Othello for a multitude of reasons was what made Othello. I believe that Iago’s wife Emilia unwittingly mirrored her husband and her role in the play explains, in part, defining Iago’s drive for revenge. Devoid of this minor character’s presence informing us of some of her husband’s motives the play would not be as complex and interesting. Without this husband and wife duo, there would be little conflict past a father unhappy with his daughters choice in husband, and the silent fuming’s of the rejected lover Roderigo.
Minor support characters can move a narrative forward, giving it life and excitement every step of the way. This theme was evident in Othello by the minor characters that made Iago’s revenge possible. Characters like Cassio and Emilia informed the reader of the entirety of the story and allowed characters like Desdemona and Iago avenues to express themselves and act out the most dramatic aspects of the story. These secondary characters are important because they give dimension to the play as well plotlines that create an intricately connected web of wide ranging characters. Iago was ultimately able to condemn Desdemona to her fate through the presence and access he had with her through his wife. Emilia as a supporting character had flaws that were related to what modern readers see as a weak or irrelevant female character, but this is not relevant to her importance, and does not take into account the growth she had over the course of Othello.
Emilia was the wife of Iago, and at first glance does not appear to be a relevant character due to her laid back and carefree attitude. Emilia is described as a chatterbox by Desdemona and the impression is given by her husband that she is a “typical” woman who is not to be trusted. It can be seen that when this play starts Emilia truly is not a character one can root for or pay any real attention to. She is easily dismissed and looked over as a “voice” that pops up here and there and is of no value. However, Emilia is an amazingly complicated and significant character in the development of the play. As the play progressed you could not help but hear her and see her more and more; and also side with her. She may have started as what appeared to be a simple pleasure seeking character that was unconcerned with ethical decisions and morality, but she did not end that way. I find that Emilia’s growth alone makes her one of Shakespeare’s most significant minor characters period. The opinion of this one character shifted from one end of the spectrum completely to the other end of the spectrum in a very short and fast-moving play. Emilia was pious, ethical and self-sacrificing in the name of what was right in the end. This was a far cry from the woman who was willing to steal a handkerchief for Iago simply because he had asked her for it and remarked that her only concern was “…to please his fantasy.” (Shakespeare 3.3.1965). The Emilia who playfully joked with her husband about having a surprise for him was no longer present at the end of the play where she was willing to die for the truth. This is quite a bit of intense character development for a minor character to go through. Emilia went far more development than a character like Roderigo, who started out weak and simple and died weak and simple. Emilia truly was the most important secondary character in Othello because she was the reason the story was able to progress and her own personal growth dictated in many ways the direction the play went into.
Despite her deep distrust of men and of her husband specifically, Emilia seemed unable to help but mirror her husband in many ways. Emilia echoes the same sentiment when she delivers her blow in describing her equal distrust in men and their actions. Emilia’s presence also goes a long way towards illuminating why Iago was as angry as he was. There is the element of Iago being slighted over a promotion that he felt he deserved over the character of Cassio, but there are also the angles related directly to women. Iago believed that Othello had slept with Emilia and this moved him to rage and a lust for revenge. The corruption of a wife for a wife was the only way that Iago felt he could be vindicated. Again this could not be a driving force for Iago and the play without the presence of Emilia. She not only developed herself and grew past mirroring Iago’s ugliness, but she also led the play towards its end with her mere presence.
The importance of Emilia to Othello cannot be denied, even by those who dislike her character. She was simultaneously like Iago and categorically different from him as a person and a character. Without her presence, Iago would not have the varied and consuming need to involve Desdemona into his plot of revenge. A lack of Emilia’s character would leave Othello to become a completely different and not very interesting tale of male jealousy related to a job promotion. Emilia affected Iago intensely and moved his direction; Emilia was the most significant minor character in the play Othello by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Open Source Shakespeare, George Mason University. n.d.