On Men II
Emilia, then, is the hard-headed realist and relativist when it comes to relations between the sexes in marriage. But notice what she does not do. She does not advocate a woman's leaving her husband to do the same things that he does to her. Her speech assumes that such behavior would not be the fault of the women, but she never advocates that approach. Whereas Emilia clearly disapproves of a man who acts in the way she has described, Desdemona can only think postive thoughts of her husband:
"My love doth so approve him,/ that even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns--/ Prithee unpin me--have grace and favor in them (4.3.19-21)."
Her experience of her love for Othello* so shapes her approach that she will have a fully different view of the matter than Emilia.
[*I will argue below that Emilia's experience with Iago also shapes her view of men. Shakespeare seems utterly realistic in suggesting, then, that differences in approaches to love arise from personal experience rather than any insight into one divinely revealed truth.]
Desdemona first raised the question of fidelity to Emilia. "Dost thou in conscience think--tell me, Emilia--/ That there be women do abuse their husbands/ In such gross kind (4.3.61-63)?" After Emilia suggests that some women also commit adultery, Desdemona solemly avers she would not do such a wrong "for the whole world (4.3.79)." She also, in 3.4, was the first one to raise the issue of Othello's jealousy, even though she did so only to dismiss it: "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 (3.4.26-29)." She brings up jealousy only to dismiss it before giving it a hearing.
What is it about Desdemona that when she has an inkling or intuition of the right issue or question, the really big issue at stake (jealousy/infidelity), she draws back from exploring it? Is this a sign of lack of self-confidence? Probably not, based on her "downright violence" in bold self-representation before the Venetian Senate. What is it then? Perhaps a momentary stabbing feeling that if she goes down that road (jealousy/infidelity) it might become something as uncontrollable for her as Othello's jealousy is for him.
Perhaps she instinctively knows that her susceptibility to adultery, for example, is strong and is actually a character flaw, and because of this she must draw back from the abyss of relativism into which she might fall by really exploring her emotions and the issues surrounding infidelity. If she says adultery might be permissible under some circumstances, she would be giving herself permission to be adulterous and could not hold herself back from completing the act. Emilia, on the other hand, seems to be able to talk about the issue dispassionately without oogling other men or making unsolicitied comments about their attractiveness.
More On Fidelity
Then, how does Desdemona respond to Emilia's scathing expose of men's varied infidelities? She says basically that the lesson she should draw from her husband's potential infidelity is for herself to become yet more faithful. In her last words of the scene, she says,
"Good night, good night. God me such uses send,/ Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend (4.3.104-105),"
which seems to mean, as the Riverside Shakespeare editors say, "not to use others' ill conduct as an excuse for behaving likewise, but rather to learn from it how to behave otherwise." I would suggest that the last word "otherwise" should say "chastely." In the words of the St. Paul, she is not to repay evil for evil but to overcome evil with good (cf. Rom. 12:21).
Reflecting on Emilia and Desdemona
Two points seem appropriate in conclusion. First, your experience in love colors your philosophy of love. And, not just colors it, but determines it. While it might be true in some abstract way to claim that all our views in life are shaped by our experience, none is more true than that our experience in loving shapes our philosophy of fidelity and intimacy. Desdemona's experience is that she loved Othello for his "honors and valiant parts" and that her heart was fully "subdu'd/ Even to the quality of" her "lord (1.3.251,253)." Emilia's experience was different. Iago seems to be a genuine misogynist, yet was also a person who still could seethe with rage if he suspected someone of taking a turn with his wife. Emilia had the experience of being "belched" out by Iago (cf. 3.4.106); hence she is also willing to be open to the possibility of women doing the same to men.
Second, taking the supposed "high moral ground," which Desdemona does, is not indicative of a higher moral standing but rather, in this case, of suppressed knowledge about one's own tendency to infidelity. In other words, she claims purity even though she is, in fact, a woman who lusts and thinks impure thoughts and may even contemplates sluttish behavior but cannot bring herself to admit this aspect of her personality. It would just be too threatening for her to say this about herself, too close to abandoning herself to the moral chaos which she feels is already present in her competing sexual feelings. For she is the one who has looked closely on the "honest face" of Cassio before defending him before Othello; she is also the one who first noticed the physical attractiveness of Lodovico in 4.3. That she saw Othello's visage in his mind does not mean that she hasn't spent an awfully great amount of time also admiring other men's visages. The moral high ground of absolute loyalty to her husband, then, is a check on her potential to unbridled behavior. Desdemona, is like the person with a tendency toward alcholism who preaches the superior virtue of abstinence from alcohol. Such a position may tell us more about the person advocating it than the virtue of the position itself.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long