Having had to preside over a state dinner right after being abused by her husband in Act IV, scene ii, Desdemona must be completely exhausted by the beginning of Act IV, scene iii. She submits without complaint to Othello’s order that she go to bed and dismiss Emilia. Despite Othello’s repeated offenses, Desdemona continues to love her husband. Alone with Desdemona, Emilia reflects that it would have been better if Desdemona had never seen Othello, but Desdemona rejects this idea, saying that Othello seems noble and graceful to her, even in his rebukes.
As Emilia undresses her, Desdemona suddenly remarks that Lodovico, who was onstage at the beginning of the scene, “is a proper man” (IV.iii.34). This remark suggests that Lodovico is attractive, all that a man should be, and it is somewhat puzzling, considering all that Desdemona has to think about at this moment. She may simply be unable to think any further about the inexplicable disaster that has befallen her marriage. Or, she may be mulling over the implications of Emilia’s idea: what would her life be like if she hadn’t married Othello? Having just been violently rebuked for infidelity by her husband, Desdemona now seems to think for the first time about what it would mean to be unfaithful. As if reading Desdemona’s thought, Emilia runs with the suggestion of Lodovico’s attractiveness, declaring that she knows a woman who would “walk barefoot to / Palestine for a touch of his nether lip” (IV.iii.36–37). Emilia’s comment serves as an invitation for Desdemona to speak more openly about the possibility of her infidelity.
When Desdemona tells the story behind the “Willow” song that she sings, she says that the name of her mother’s maid was “Barbary” (IV.iii.25), inadvertently echoing Iago’s description of Othello as a “Barbary horse” (I.i.113). The word refers to the countries along the north coast of Africa, and thus the name suggests an exotic, African element in Desdemona’s background, although the name “Barbary” was in use in Elizabethan England, so Barbary herself wasn’t necessarily African. The song itself is melancholy, and it portrays an attitude of fatalism regarding love, a resigned acceptance of misfortune that Desdemona seems to embrace. “Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve,” she sings, before realizing that she has supplied the wrong words (IV.iii.50).
Desdemona’s attitude toward her chastity represents what Renaissance males wanted and expected of women, and it is certainly what Othello wants from his wife. She sees it as an absolute entity that is worth more to her than her life or ownership of the entire whole world. Emilia, on the other hand, suggests that the ideal of female chastity is overblown and exaggerated. Throughout the scene, Emilia seems to be trying to gently hint that instead of quietly suffering Othello’s abuse, Desdemona ought to look for happiness elsewhere. She argues that women are basically the same as men, and that the two sexes are unfaithful for the same reasons: affection for people other than their spouse, human weakness, and simple desire for enjoyment, or “sport” (IV.iii.95). Contrasted with Othello, who veers between seeing Desdemona as a monumentalized, ideal figure and as a whore with a thousand partners, Emilia’s words do not advocate infidelity so much as a desire for reasonable middle ground, a societal acknowledgment that women are human beings with needs and desires rather than virgins or whores.