What Is The Nature Of The Relationship Between Emilia And Desdemona In Act 4?

Updated 8 November, 2023
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.
Detailed answer:

In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the 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.
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’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’.
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.

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