Literature Study GuidesOthelloAct 4 Scene 3 Summary

Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Othello | Act 4, Scene 3 | Summary



That night, Othello tells Desdemona to go to bed, and to send Emilia and her other servants away for the night. As Emilia helps get her ready for bed, Desdemona remembers a song her mother's servant (named "Barbary" just as Iago called Othello a "Barbary horse" in Act 1, Scene 1) used to sing: "a song of Willow" about a woman whose lover left her. Emilia tries to comfort Desdemona, saying men are often jealous and treat their wives unfairly. Desdemona finds Emilia's attitude a little shocking, and she is incredulous that wives would be unfaithful. Emilia, however, suggests that women are unfaithful because their husbands were unfaithful first.


In this scene, Othello coldly dismisses Desdemona to the bed in which he plans to kill her. In the intimate scene between the two women that follows, Desdemona expresses her confusion about why Othello thinks she could possibly be unfaithful. Emilia, more worldly wise, protests that many women have affairs, and she blames this on the husbands, who probably are out there having all kinds of affairs rather than attending to their wives. She calls out the double standard that men are allowed to have affairs, while women are expected to be faithful. She gives a compelling argument for the humanity, equality, agency, and sexual needs of women. She also turns the traditional leadership role of men back on itself, noting that because men are supposed to be leaders, it is no surprise women would learn to have affairs from them: "The ills we do, their ills instruct us so." Perhaps Emilia, having seen the cruel treatment of Desdemona by Othello, is encouraging Desdemona to take a lover, for her own satisfaction and happiness. Or perhaps, as Iago wondered, Emilia has already had affairs. There's no conclusive evidence for this, but it remains a possibility, and certainly Emilia's attitude here is more sexually liberated than Desdemona's.

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