On Men I
Desdemona and Emilia in 4.3.60-105
The Willow Song which Desdemona sang in 4.3.40-60 is a song of death as well as a song of newness. It betokens death because Barbary, her mother's maid, died singing it after "he she lov'd prov'd mad (4.3.27)." Yet, there is also a contrary signification in it because the last verse says "If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men (4.3.57)," indicating that love's end need not be the end of life. There are "moe" women and "moe" men. These two contrary messages in the song lead Desdemona to reflect on relationships between men and women. For the remainder of the scene she and Emilia take contrary positions on women's choices when confronted with an unfaithful husband.
In short, Desdemona adopts the position that a husband's dalliances do not justify a wife's straying while Emilia eloquently argues that the variety of ways that men mistreat their wives justifies or at least renders understandable the wives' own infidelity. Tersely said, Emilia's position is "But I do think it is their husbands' faults/ If wives do fall (4.3.86-87)." Their differences might best be captured by saying that Desdemona is the "absolutist," believing in absolute moral values while Emilia is the "relativist," believing that the situation defines the choices. Ironically, it is the absolutist who is portrayed as has having flirted much more with the reality of infidelity in the play than the relativist.
When asked by Desdemona if she thinks that women "do abuse their husbands/ In such gross kind [i.e., by committing adultery] (4.3.62-63)," Emilia responds that undoubtedly some women do so. Then, after humorously responding to Desdemona's mild imprecation ("No, by this heavenly light"--4.3.64) by contrasting it with darkness ("Nor I neither by this heavenly light;/ I might do't as well i' th' dark (4.3.66-67)," she shows her relativist colors. She herself would be unfaithful "for all the world," because if she got all the world in exchange for adultery, then her husband would be king, and they together could rewrite the laws and redefine what she did as not adultery (4.3.71-82). She has unwittingly stated the argument of Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato's Republic that justice is simply the interest of the stronger. The stronger can define the terms of action and "might quickly make it right (4.3.82)."
But it is not as if she is just a slippery relativist, desirous of redefining adultery for her own interest. Emilia then goes on to list at least five ways in which women are typically abused by their husbands, which might justify their actions of infidelity. In listing these actions, Emilia shows that she is a hard-headed realist, a woman who is in touch with the actual throbbing realities of the world. As stated above, she thinks "it is their husbands' faults, If wives do fall (4.3.86-87)," principally because "the ills we do, their ill instruct us so (4.3.103)." Here are the "ills" men [i.e., husbands] teach.
The Ills Men Teach
1.) They spend money on their girlfriends. "Say that they slack their duties,/ And pour our treasures into foreign laps (4.3.87-88)." Sound like a familiar complaint? Men neglect the more prosaic duties of loyalty to wife and family for the excitement of a "foreign lap."
2.) They put restrictions on their wives. "Or else break out in peevish jealousies,/ Throwing restraint upon us (4.3.89-90)." Isn't that the message Emilia has been tyring to deliver to Desdemona? Othello has broken out in his "peevish" jealousy, which she mentioned multiple times (cf.3.4.159-162) and the growing "restraint" on Desdemona, which begins in 3.3, is ultimately going to eventuate in the "restraint" on her breathing in 5.2.
3.) They beat women. "Or say they strike us... (4.3.90)." This is calculated also to evoke a strong reaction from Desdemona, since she has just received the humiliating slap from Othello in 4.1
4.) They cut back on a wife's allowance. "Or scant our former having in despite (4.3.91)." Maybe they do this because they are spending more money on their girlfriends; maybe they do so just because it pleases men to act in this way as a sign of their control over women.
5.) They leave us. "What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/ I think it is. And doth affection [i.e., passion or lust] breed it?/ I think it doth. Is't frailty that thus errs?/ It is so too (4.3.96-100)." In other words, men stray because of frailty and because of sport. They want to play new "games" and they are weak.
Emilia's discourse on men's frailty rings much truer than Desdemona's attempt to exculpate Othello from responsibility for his irrational actions in 3.4. Recall that in that scene a raging Othello suggested to Desdemona from both her hand and the absent handkerchief that she was unfaithful. Her hand was "hot, hot, and moist (3.4.39)," a sure sign of a "liberal (generous as well as licentious) heart (3.4.38)," and she had misplaced the handkerchief, the loss or gift of which "were such perdition/ As nothing else could match (3.4.67-68)." Nevertheless, Desdemona seeks to excuse Othello's behavior on the ground of human frailty. She says, "Nay, we must think men are not gods,/ Nor of them look for such observancey/ As fits the bridal (3.4.148-150)."
What Women Might Do
Emilia will have none of this roseate reasoning. Men certainly are frail, and this leads them to stray, but Emilia doesn't thereby excuse them for their conduct. Instead, she concludes that men are women's teachers in this regard, and that if women follow suit and follow their own desire for sport, how can men complain? They were the great instructors, and their dutiful wives were only imitating the lessons taught be their lords. As Emilia makes her airtight case, she does so in words reminiscent of Shylock's great speech in the Merchant of Venice:
"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,/ dimensions, senses, affections, passions.... (MoV 3.1.59-60)?" And, "If you/ poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall/ we not revenge....The villainty you teach/ me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will/ better the instruction (MoV 3.1.65-73)."
Women's response to the ills men do by desiring to act in similar ways is only natural. Hence Emilia closes with a warning, "Then let them use [i.e., treat] us well; else let them know,/ The ills we do, their ills instruct us so (4.3.102-103)."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long