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Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Detailed Summary of Othello, Act 4, Scene 3

Othello orders Desdemona to dismiss Emilia, go to bed, and wait for him. Desdemona gets ready for bed and sings "Willow," a song of lost love. Desdemona asks Emilia if there really are women who commit adultery; Emilia tells her that there are, but their sins are the fault of their husbands. Desdemona resolves not to be such a woman.

Enter Othello, Lodovico, Desdemona, and Emilia:
The state dinner is over, and Othello -- followed by Desdemona and Emilia -- is walking with Lodovico, who says, "I do beseech you, sir, trouble yourself no further" (4.3.1), but Othello says that it will do him good to walk some more. Apparently they are just outside of Othello's quarters, so Lodovico bids Desdemona good night. Before he walks Lodovico home, Othello gives orders to Desdemona: "Get you to bed on the instant; I will be returned forthwith. Dismiss your attendant there. Look it be done" (4.3.7-9).

(As soon as the men leave, we are suddenly in Desdemona's bedroom or dressing-room, where she starts preparing for bed.)

We know why Othello gave his orders to Desdemona. He wants her to be alone and helpless when he kills her. So the shadow of death hovers over Desdemona as she shows her innocence and her love for her husband.

As soon as the men are gone, Emilia asks Desdemona, "How goes it now? he looks gentler than he did" (4.3.11). Emilia is full of concern for Desdemona. She has seen Othello shout at her over a handkerchief and she has heard him call her a whore, so she wants to know if Desdemona is going to be subjected to further abuse. Desdemona tells Emilia, "He says he will return incontinent [immediately]: / He hath commanded me to go to bed, / And bade me to dismiss you" (4.3.12-14). In this context "dismiss" doesn't mean that Emilia is to be fired from her job; it just means that Othello doesn't want her with Desdemona when he returns. However, that is enough to alarm Emilia, who exclaims, "Dismiss me?" (4.3.14).

Desdemona does not -- or is determined not to -- share Emilia's concern. She takes Othello's orders as something to be obeyed without question and says to Emilia, "It was his bidding: therefore, good Emilia, / Give me my nightly wearing, and adieu: / We must not now displease him" (4.3.15-17). In answer to this, Emilia speaks her heart: "I would you had never seen him!" (4.3.18). Desdemona understands what Emilia has against Othello, and answers, "So would not I. My love doth so approve him, / That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns-- / Prithee, unpin me,--have grace and favour in them." (4.3.19-21). In other words, her love for Othello has the power to transform his fierce bitterness ("stubbornness"), his verbal abuse ("checks"), and his frowns into things beautiful and attractive. Desdemona emphasizes her message by asking Emilia to help "unpin" (her hair, probably), so that she can go to bed, where Othello commanded her to wait for him.

If Emilia thought she might turn Desdemona against Othello, she gives up on that idea and tries to soothe her by saying "I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed" (4.3.22). She's referring to the wedding sheets which Desdemona requested after Othello called her a "whore." "All's one," Desdemona answers, as though it doesn't really matter, but the mention of the sheets calls up a strange thought and she says, "Good faith, how foolish are our minds! / If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me / In one of those same sheets" (4.3.23-25).

Trying to put such thoughts out of Desdemona's mind, Emilia says, "Come, come you talk" (4.3.25), but Desdemona falls into a reverie:
My mother had a maid call'd Barbary:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of "willow,"
An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song to-night
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side,
And sing it like poor Barbary.   (4.3.26-33)
There is a very strong parallel between Barbary and Desdemona. Like Barbary, Desdemona is in love, and her beloved, though not "mad," is insanely jealous and has emotionally forsaken Desdemona. Presumably, Barbary died of a broken heart while singing the "willow" song; Desdemona will die at the hands of her love soon after she sings the same song.

For us, Desdemona's thoughts create a sense of foreboding, but Desdemona has no idea that she is about to be killed. She's depressed by the sense that she is losing Othello's love, and so the song comes into her head. The sense of lost love is evoked both by the song of "willow" and the willow tree itself. The tree, sometimes called the "weeping willow," was thought to be reminiscent of a rain of tears, or of the long hair of a person hanging her head in mourning.

Before Desdemona sings the song, another strange thought comes into her head. After again asking Emilia to unpin her, Desdemona says, "This Lodovico is a proper [good-looking] man" (4.3.35). Emilia answers that he is very handsome, and Desdemona adds, "He speaks well"(4.3.37). Apparently trying to encourage Desdemona to think about someone other than Othello, Emilia says, "I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip" (4.3.38-39), but Desdemona drops the subject and begins to sing, leaving us to wonder why Lodovico came to mind. Did she remember that Lodovico had taken her part when Othello slapped her and humiliated her in public? Or did she wonder, just for a moment, what her life would have been like married to someone like Lodovico, rather than Othello?

The "willow" song pictures a woman in a state of deep melancholy, her hand on her breast, her head on her knee, moaning and weeping as she sits beside a stream. Desdemona sings the first verse, asks Emilia to hurry, and then begins the second verse of the song, with "Sing all a green willow must be my garland" (4.3.51), but then she adds a line of her own: "Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve" (4.3.52). Now she's singing of her feelings about Othello, not of the sad woman in song. She realizes that she's made a mistake in her singing, thinks she hears a knock at the door, then continues the actual song: "I call'd my love false love; but what said he then? / Sing willow, willow, willow: / If I court moe [more] women, you'll couch with [have sex with] moe men." (4.3.55-57).

The bitter second verse of the song seems to be a comment on Desdemona's situation. The weeping woman in the song accused her lover of being unfaithful, but he turned the accusation back on her and made his unfaithfulness her fault. It's the end of the road for the weeping woman, as Othello's jealous fantasies about Desdemona mark the end of the road for her. Desdemona's determination to keep on loving Othello isn't going to save her life, but neither is anything else.

After singing the song, Desdemona bids Emilia goodnight and says that her eyes itch, as though she is about to weep. It looks like the scene is winding down, and that Emilia is going to go away while Desdemona makes her way to bed, but Desdemona still has something on her mind. She says, "O, these men, these men! / Dost thou in conscience [in truth, really] think,--tell me, Emilia,-- / That there be women do abuse their husbands / In such gross kind?" (4.3.60-63). Desdemona means that "these men" and their jealousies are impossible, and she wants to know if wives ever really give their husbands any reason to be jealous. It's not that Desdemona hasn't heard of adultery before; it's just that it seems incredible to her. She feels that every wife must love as she does, with a passion that excludes any other romantic possibilities.

In this state of mind, she asks Emilia, "Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?" (4.3.64). Emilia, who doesn't see the world as Desdemona does, replies, "Why, would not you?" (4.3.65). Desdemona exclaims, "No, by this heavenly light!" (4.3.65), and Emilia makes a joke: "Nor I neither by this heavenly light; / I might do't as well i' the dark" (4.3.66-67).

Emilia appears to be the only character in the play with a sense of humor (Iago's humor is only slightly disguised malice), but her joke just makes Desdemona ask again "Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?" (4.3.68). In response, Emilia then continues in a light-hearted way, playing with the idea of committing adultery "for all the world." She says that she wouldn't do the deed for any cheap trinkets, but if doing it would gain her the world and make her husband king, she'd do it and take her chances in purgatory for the sin. Besides, adultery is a wrong only in the world, and if you owned the world, you could make the wrong right.

Emilia's humor is refreshing, but Desdemona's mind doesn't change, and she says, "I do not think there is any such woman" (4.3.83). To this, Emilia gives an answer containing equal parts of common sense and feminism. She says that there are at least a dozen women who would commit adultery for the whole world, and even more who would do it if they wouldn't have to share the world with their husbands. Besides, she declares, "I do think it is their husbands' faults / If wives do fall" (4.3.86-87). She says that if men sleep around, or get jealous for no reason, or hit their wives, or take away their wives' household spending money, those men should remember that their sweet wives can get resentful and take revenge. Furthermore:
                         Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.   (4.3.93-103)
Desdemona has been talking as though having an affair was the most horrible thing imaginable; Emilia's point is that men do it all the time, just for fun, or for love, or because they give in to temptation. And if men "change us for others," their wives will learn to do the same, because women are just like men. Perhaps Emilia is implying that Desdemona should stand up for herself more, but Desdemona ends the scene by saying, "Good night, good night. God me such uses send, / Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend." (4.3.104-105). "Uses" are habits; Desdemona wants God to give her good moral habits. If she has such habits she will never "pick" an excuse for bad from the bad of others. Instead, she will observe the bad of others in order to mend her own ways and become better.

In truth, we know that Desdemona's goodness is right. Sinking to the level of the bad guys works only in movies starring cyborgs with machine guns. Yet the good die, too, as Desdemona is about to.