Shakespeare’s Take on Jephthah: The Ill-Fated Women in Othello

Othello is easily one of William Shakespeare’s most psychologically unsettling tragedies.  The narrative deals with racism, manipulation, paranoia, and violent betrayal.  While many critics are fascinated with the title character’s fall from grace and more still are intrigued by Iago’s evil, another vital component of the story is the sad fate of the innocents destroyed by these characters’ vices.  Like the poor, dutiful daughter of the biblical Jephthah, the characters of Desdemona and Emilia are perhaps the most tragic characters in the whole story since they lose their lives because of their husband’s flaws and not any serious faults of their own.

The more famous of the two women is Desdemona, daughter to Brabantio and wife to Othello.  Despite doing everything in her power to be a loving wife and supportive friend, her part in the play is plagued with hardships until is gruesome end.  The first hardship is the scornful way her father gives her over to Othello.  Even after she graciously explains that she wed Othello out of love and not familial disrespect, Brabantio still treats her with scorn (I. iii. 208-218).  He speaks against her to Othello: “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (I. iii. 334).  This is unfortunately only the beginning of her problems. After the wedded couple go to Cyprus, Desdemona decides to help Cassio get back in Othello’s good graces only to be framed for infidelity by Othello’s ancient, Iago.  Worse still, the object used by Iago to turn Othello against Desdemona is the handkerchief she accidently drops after trying to bind Othello’s brow (III. ii. 331).  In a cruel, ironic twist, her unappreciated display of affection for her husband enables Iago to destroy their marriage.  Later, as Othello deteriorates into a paranoid rage, he abuses Desdemona verbally and physically, even in public (IV. i. 270-278).  To crown her sorrows, Desdemona is ultimately strangled by Othello in her bridal chamber, denied even the time and breath to pray for her soul (V. ii. 96-105).  Nevertheless, even as she dies, she protects Othello, claiming she has committed suicide rather than justly accuse him of murder (V. ii. 152-153).  Desdemona’s true tragedy is that she is an innocent, faithful woman in a cynical, treacherous world.

Despite not being as thoroughly discussed as Desdemona’s, Emilia’s role in the play is also incredibly tragic.  First, towards the beginning of the play, an apparently unsubstantiated rumor circulates that she and Othello are playing around behind Iago’s back (I. iii. 430-431).  Without her ever knowing it, Emilia’s supposed infidelity inspires Iago to poison Desdemona and Othello’s marriage.  Later, at Iago’s insisting, Emilia steals the dropped handkerchief which Iago later plants meticulously to fuel Othello’s mounting fury (III. iii. 349-363).  Emilia’s attempt to gain favor with her own husband inadvertently leads to her friend’s unhappiness and eventual demise.  Finally, upon witnessing Desdemona die, Emilia quickly realizes and exposes her husband’s schemes only to be rewarded with his knife to her chest (SD V. ii. 267-282).  She perishes beside Desdemona, using her last lines to testify to Othello: “Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor” (V. ii. 299).

In a story fraught with rumors, scandals, fighting, backstabbing, and homicide, the fates of Desdemona and Emilia seem especially disproportionate to their mistakes.  Neither woman acted out of vice, but rather naïve virtue.  Their tragedies illustrate one of the play’s most cynical undertones, that good intentions are easily exploited and destroyed by evil designs.

~Mich Walter

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