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Othello interrogates Emilia about Desdemona’s behavior, but Emilia insists that Desdemona has done nothing suspicious. Othello tells Emilia to summon Desdemona, implying while Emilia is gone that she is a “bawd,” or female pimp (IV.ii.21). When Emilia returns with Desdemona, Othello sends Emilia to guard the door. Alone with Desdemona, Othello weeps and proclaims that he could have borne any affliction other than the pollution of the “fountain” from which his future children are to flow (IV.ii.61). When Desdemona fervently denies being unfaithful, Othello sarcastically replies that he begs her pardon: he took her for the “cunning whore of Venice” who married Othello (IV.ii.93). Othello storms out of the room, and Emilia comes in to comfort her mistress. Desdemona tells Emilia to lay her wedding sheets on the bed for that night.
At Desdemona’s request, Emilia brings in Iago, and Desdemona tries to find out from him why Othello has been treating her like a whore. Emilia says to her husband that Othello must have been deceived by some villain, the same sort of villain who made Iago suspect Emilia of sleeping with Othello. Iago assures Desdemona that Othello is merely upset by some official business, and a trumpet flourish calls Emilia and Desdemona away to dinner with the Venetian emissaries.
Roderigo enters, furious that he is still frustrated in his love, and ready to make himself known in his suit to Desdemona so that she might return all of the jewels that Iago was supposed to have given her from him. Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio is being assigned to Othello’s place. Iago also lies, saying that Othello is being sent to Mauritania, in Africa, although he is really being sent back to Venice. He tells Roderigo that the only way to prevent Othello from taking Desdemona away to Africa with him would be to get rid of Cassio. He sets about persuading Roderigo that he is just the man for “knocking out [Cassio’s] brains” (IV.ii.229).
After dinner, Othello proposes to walk with Lodovico, and sends Desdemona to bed, telling her that he will be with her shortly and that she should dismiss Emilia. Desdemona seems aware of her imminent fate as she prepares for bed. She says that if she dies before Emilia, Emilia should use one of the wedding sheets for her shroud. As Emilia helps her mistress to undress, Desdemona sings a song, called “Willow,” about a woman whose love forsook her. She says she learned the song from her mother’s maid, Barbary, who died singing the song after she had been deserted by her lover. The song makes Desdemona think about adultery, and she asks Emilia whether she would cheat on her husband “for all the world” (IV.iii.62). Emilia says that she would not deceive her husband for jewels or rich clothes, but that the whole world is a huge prize and would outweigh the offense. This leads Emilia to speak about the fact that women have appetites for sex and infidelity just as men do, and that men who deceive their wives have only themselves to blame if their wives cheat on them. Desdemona replies that she prefers to answer bad deeds with good deeds rather than with more bad deeds. She readies herself for bed.
In Act IV, scene ii, Othello interrogates Emilia as if she were a witness to a crime. Her testimony would be strong evidence of Desdemona’s innocence, except that Othello dismisses it all as lies, because it does not accord with what he already believes. Just as there is no way for Othello to prove beyond any doubt that Desdemona has been unfaithful, no amount of evidence could now overturn Othello’s belief in her guilt. (In the final scene, Othello does abruptly decide that he has been deceived all along by Iago, but not because he is confronted by compelling proof.) Othello explains away any evidence in Desdemona’s favor, however strong, by imagining Emilia and Desdemona to be subtle and sophisticated liars.
When Othello has finished questioning Emilia, he interrogates Desdemona. She is still very much the articulate, generous wife she has been in earlier scenes, and she fervently denies Othello’s accusations. Even though he has no intention of believing her, he calls on her to swear that she is honest, as if all he wants is to see her damn herself with more lies. Moreover, he exaggerates her infidelities out of all proportion to reality or human possibility, comparing her copulation to the breeding of summer flies or foul toads. Having opened the floodgates of doubt, Othello seems to have expanded Desdemona’s infractions to make her the worst wife humanly conceivable. Perhaps any infidelity is as painful to him as a thousand infidelities, and his exaggerations only communicate the importance to him of her chastity. It is also possible that Othello’s belief that Desdemona has been unfaithful has robbed him of his only stable point of reference, so that he has no grip on reality to check his imagination.
This is perhaps one of Shakespeare's more interesting plays, if you will. In comparison to Macbeth it isn't quite the walk in the park.
I think conceptually it enables the reader to see that characters can influence characters to such a degree that the original traits are masked and changed. Tragedy in this play is definitely a main component - and a great emphasis that perhaps the villain doesn't always find their true defeat. In a way, wasn't the "villain" successful? He lied to everyone and pretty much killed whomever got in his way.
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Just a theory
The role of Emelia in Othello.
Before I begin expounding on this thought, let me first say that I am not a Shakespearean “Scholar”. I am just a teacher who loves teaching Shakespeare on the off-chance that one of my students will get bitten by the bug and want to study and read more of the man than just the set works that he or she has to cover for exam purposes.
Having taught Othello to matric classes for the past 4 years, I have developed a few theories of my own about Shakespeare’s “bit” actors,... Read more→
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Othello was the final play in my effort to read all of Shakespeare before his 450th. It was a great time reading them all, and Othello was one of the most difficult and darkest (so often pitting light against darkness).
While racism in Elizabethan England wasn't the same as that of the 21st century, it certainly was a backdrop to the play, and Shakespeare, this time, seemed to challenge it.
If you're interested, see my blog on Othello: