Desdemona and Emilia (3.4)
On Men and Misconceptions
In 3.4 and again in 4.3 Desdesmona and her attendant Emilia engage in conversations about Othello and men in general. They are motivated to do this by Othello's strange behavior in 3.3.280ff, where he complained of a headache to Desdemona. Emilia will argue that Othello's conduct is a result of jealousy while Desdemona will deny that possibility. What is striking, however, are the various ways in which Desdemona misconstrues her husband's behavior. This is all the more arresting because Desdemona has claimed that she "saw Othello's visage in his mind (1.3.252)." Is Shakespeare trying to suggest, as he does in so many of his other plays, that the act of seeing in Othello is also an act of blindness?
Misconstruing through Denying Jealousy
As she is searching in vain for the lost handkerchief, Desdemona shows that jealousy is on her mind, even if she doesn't think that Othello is jealous:
"Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse/ Full of crusadoes; and but my noble Moor/ Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness/ As jealious creatures are, it were enough/ To put him to ill thinking (3.4.25-29)."
Emilia quickly takes the bait. "Is he not jealious (3.4.29)?" Perhaps Emilia is sensitive to issues of jealousy because she has already been the victim of her husband's jealousy because she purportedly slept with Othello. As she later says in disgust to Iago: "Some such squire he was/ That turn'd your wit the seamy side without,/ And made you to suspect me with the Moor (4.3.145-147)." Maybe she has seen the telltale signs of jealousy in Othello's unwillingness to join his party guests, and wants to suggest that possibility gently to Desdemona.
But Desdemona will have none of it. "Who, he? I think the sun where he was born/ Drew all such humors from him (3.4.30-31)." Medical writers since Hippocrates and philosophers since Aristotle were aware of the four "humors" in the body which determined temperament: black bile (the melancholic), yellow bile (the bilious or jaundiced), white humor (the phlegmatic) or red humor (the sanguine). Jealousy would have been one aspect of the bilious temperament, but, according to the vivid picture of Desdemona, the sun had sucked this feature from him.
How wrong she is. Perhaps a new lover does not want to see this characteristic in the beloved. But, then again, Othello's own jealousy seemed even to surprise him. In his valedictory lines in the play, when he wanted others to "speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/ Nor set down aught in malice (5.2.342-343)," he described himself as one "that lov'd not wisely but too well;/ Of one not easily jealious, but being wrought,/ Perplexed in the extreme (5.3.344-346)." Unless he is self-deceived at this point or is "extenuating" himself, maybe Dedesmona had reason to believe what she said. From all she has seen, and we have seen, Othello is a calm, dignified commander who seems very sure of himself and very unthreatened even by the menacing acts of Brabantio and others. Emilia knows better, however; she has developed a "theory" of men from her own experience with Iago.
Misconstruing through Promoting Cassio
Desdemona is also deaf to the meaning of Othello's clumsy examination of her hand and the handkerchief (3.4.35-98). Rather than taking his comments about her heart being "liberal (3.4.38)" and her hand being "frank (3.4.44)" to be indications of Othello's distrust, she hears those words in their positive sense: as a commendation of her graciousness and generosity. A naively optimistic evaluation of Othello's nature is now wed to a similar evaluation of her own. Because she cannot see the potential vitriol in another, she cannot see how someone could construe anything that she did in a negative way. She does not know that a person who "reads" the world negatively also includes good people in that net of negativity. It is always a sign of naivete when a person says, "I did absolutely nothing to provoke such a reaction." Of course you didn't. Tsunamis wash over the just and the unjust alike.
But she certainly doesn't help matters by continuing to ply Cassio's cause. She tries to get Othello off his focus on her hand by directing his attention to his "promise" to restore Cassio. But the mere mention of Cassio's name by Desdemona ("I have sent to bid Cassio come speak with you"--3.4.50) stabs Othello afresh: "I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me (3.4.51)." Later, in the midst of the conversation about the handkerchief, Desdemona interrupts: "Pray you let Cassio be receiv'd again (3.4.88)." A deafening crescendo follows; a ping-pong richochet of "Cassio" by Desdemona and "handkerchief" by Othello leads to Desdemona's uncharacteristic "I' faith, you are to blame (3.4.97)" and Othello's quick exit. She is blind to the way that her representing Cassio's cause, innocent as it may be, speaks volumes of deceit to the jealous person. Indeed, it will be her unrelenting effort to get Cassio restored that leads to one of the dramatic events of the play: Othello slapping her (4.1.240). She cannot see, or refuses to see, the effect her mention of Cassio's name has on Othello.
When Emilia tries to suggest for a second time that jealousy is the culprit ("Is not this man jealious?"--3.4.99), Desdemona claims ignorance: "I nev'r saw this before./ Sure, there's some wonder in this handkerchief./ I am most unhappy in the loss of it (3.4.100-102)." When we consider that later in the scene Bianca will herself become jealous because of the handkerchief (3.4.180-183), and that the handkerchief is the instrument that goads Othello on to murder (4.1.172), we must agree with Othello's sober assessment of it: "'Tis true; there's magic in the web of it (3.4.69)."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long