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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
ACT IV, SCENE III
As Othello prepares to walk Lodovico to his room for the night, he tells Desdemona to prepare for bed and to send Emilia away. (It was the custom for women of rank to have an attendant sleep nearby, to provide anything they might need during the night.)
Emilia notices that Othello seems gentler than before. He's cooly polite, not the coarse ruffian he was before dinner. Perhaps, now that he has made peace with himself about his decision to kill Desdemona, an unnatural calm has settled over him.
But Emilia isn't completely convinced that Othello is back to his former self. She tells Desdemona she wishes her mistress had never met him. But Desdemona doesn't agree:
So would not I. My love doth so approve him That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns (Prithee unpin me) have grace and favor in them. Act IV, Scene iii, lines 21-23 In her gentle purity, she loves Othello even when he treats her badly.
NOTE: From a modern point of view, Desdemona may seem a weak and silly creature. She takes her husband's insults and accusations without a word of protest. She says she loves him no matter how badly he treats her.
It's important to see Desdemona as a product of her times. She was
raised to be obedient to her husband, to follow his rule in all matters.
It would be impossible for her to leave her husband and be considered
Yet it is necessary to think of Desdemona as more than a woman who obeys her husband because of society's rules. She is a woman who, as one reader has said, is "without armor." Her only defense against Othello's accusations is her love for him. She knows she is innocent and can find no answer for Othello's behavior. Her vulnerability comes from her youth and inexperience, not her weakness. We saw her strength when she eloped with Othello and when she faced the Senate. And we saw her loyalty when she fought in Cassio's defense. All her actions come from a kind heart, including her inability to stand up to her husband.
A strange peace has settled over Desdemona, too. Unconsciously, she seems to be aware of her fate, telling Emilia of her mother's maid, who went crazy for the love of a man and died singing a song entitled "Willow." As Emilia prepares her for bed, Desdemona sings this sweet, sad song of infidelity. She suggests that her wedding sheets be used as her shroud (burial doth) if she should die.
The women's conversation turns to adultery. Are there really women who cheat on their husbands, Desdemona wants to know. Emilia assures her that there are, but Desdemona refuses to believe her. (We often refuse to believe things we don't want to believe.)
When Desdemona asks Emilia if she would commit adultery Emilia says she would "for all the world." "The world's a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice." What woman wouldn't cheat on her husband for the whole world, Emilia wonders. If you owned the world, you could make your husband king and right any wrong you might have committed. If women cheat, Emilia adds, its because they're forced into it by the husband's faults. The contrast between the two women is striking-one woman who doesn't even believe adultery exists and another who knows a great deal about it!
Desdemona's parting words to Emilia take the form of a prayer. She asks that she be given the power to face evil and to learn from it, not return it or become worse from it. Does Desdemona know that she will need such strength before the night is over?