“What is particularly dramatic about Act4, Scene 3 of ‘Othello’? Explore the relationship between the two women themselves and their relationships with their husbands here and elsewhere. Do you think Shakespeare himself is ‘putting down’ women or is he just portraying a male attitude of his time? ” Act 4 Scene 3 of ‘Othello’ is clearly a pivotal scene in Shakespeare’s tragedy – in the previous scene Othello has accused Desdemona to her face of adultery, with Emilia present.In scene 3 the women come to terms with the changes present in the mind of Othello, discuss men’s treatment of females in general and, through this exchange that deals with this delicate topic, reach a deeper understanding of and level of communication with each other.
In order to consider the role of women in ‘Othello’ (and therefore the dramatic quality of Act 4 Scene 3), we must first understand the context in which Shakespeare has chosen to set the play within. His main characters have all been brought up as Venetians, and the city of Venice would be well-known to an Elizabethan audience as being the ‘pleasure capital’ of Europe.Many of the theatre-goers would never have travelled overseas and stereotype would form much of their opinion of foreigners – Venetian women in particular were as being sexually loose. This was a fearful prospect for English men who were afraid of the shame of cuckolding.
Venetian men were viewed as husbands who were constantly jealous and in lust of their loose wives. Venice was a synonym for new money, passions and intrigues, “a racial and religious melting-pot” (Fintan O’Toole). This setting was deeply in contrast with the way that 16th Century England viewed itself.In the male-dominated society that existed there, obedience of women was crucial.
Loose tongues meant loose sexuality, but if women didn’t speak they could be considered cunning and plotting. It was a universally-held opinion that the ideal woman should be quiet, obedient, tractable and benign. For the most part of ‘Othello’, Desdemona embodies this perception except at two major points – when she stands against both the Senate and her own father in order to defend her marriage to the Moor, and in Act 4 Scene 3 when she is alone with Emilia.In this scene Shakespeare is showing the power that two women can have together and the threat that they can potentially pose.
This is the most feministic scene of the play as it is the only scene without male presence throughout (although male dominance still controls the conversation) and it is difficult to determine if Shakespeare is siding with the women and attempting to persuade the audience to do the same or if he is simply mocking them. Perhaps he is trying to warn other men of the ‘dangerous’ ideas that women are capable of having.The scene begins with Desdemona asking Emilia to leave as was Othello’s order. The request shocks Emilia, unsurprisingly as it is unusual, but Desdemona’s insistence shows that no matter what may have happened her loyalty to Othello remains.
Emilia helps Desdemona to undress before she retires to bed and that will be the key visual action of this scene – the effect of this on the audience is to make Desdemona appear at her most frail, her most vulnerable, her most pure. This is reflected in the honesty of the words exchanged by the two.The next topic is Emilia attempting to normalise things a little by saying she has “laid those sheets you bade me” on Desdemona’s bed. These are Desdemona’s wedding sheets and she asks Emilia to shroud her in one of those same sheets “if I should die before thee.
” (This line could be interpreted as “If I am killed before you are” or as “if I die in front of you, in your sight”. This grimly foreshadows the fact that not only will both readings above be proved correct, Desdemona will be smothered in those sheets and so will be killed by her shrouds).To a modern audience it is horrifying that Desdemona feels her husband is capable of her murder (and yet still she is obedient and loyal to him), but perhaps some female members of an Elizabethan audience would be in a position to empathise with Desdemona’s predicament. Now Desdemona’s mind turns to her mother’s maid Barbara who sang the song of willow.
“He she loved proved mad” – is Desdemona drawing a parallel between Barbara’s love and Othello’s growing madness? In this case, she is indirectly showing more of her fear of her husband though she cannot directly speak ill of him and so the tension builds for the viewing audience.Through her singing of the song Desdemona displays more innocence, more simplicity. It signifies the collapse of language and her reaching for a non-spoken form of communication/expression. Incidentally, the song lyrics mention a sycamore tree alongside the more traditionally mournful willow.
Perhaps it is a pun (sick-amour, sick-a-Moor) or perhaps it is just a tragic device of Shakespeare’s (Romeo was found in a grove of sycamore when lovesick). Throughout the song Desdemona is nervous and edgy (“Hark! Who is’t that knocks? “), this mood being transferred to the audience. For all of this scene the main focus has been on Desdemona.She has led the conversation into dark and melancholy areas, with Emilia attempting to calm her and keep things normal.
Now Desdemona asks Emilia’s opinion on marital abuse and deceit, and Emilia starts to show a darker side to her character. She has suffered for some time from the emotional neglect and public scorn of husband Iago, as shown particularly in her entrance in Act 2 Scene 1, Iago saying of her “She puts her tongue a little in her heart and chides without thinking. ” Emilia mildly attempts to defend herself, but Iago continues to verbally abuse her before the others.Later in Act 3 Scene 3 when Emilia has stolen Desdemona’s handkerchief “to please his fantasy” he enters and before he knows what she has done for him says that “It is a common thing.
.. to have a foolish wife. ” Even in private he continues to denounce her.
Emilia sees adultery as an ultimately forgivable sin, and would find it considerably easy to sleep with another man after having such a poor marital experience herself. When asked by Desdemona if she would commit adultery for all the world she replies in the affirmative – “The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price, for a small vice.By this she means that the world is a big enough prize to cancel out such a small deed as adultery in order to claim it. From this we can see that Emilia sees adultery not only as an easy thing but also just a little sacrifice to her moral well-being when viewed in comparison to owning the entire world.
She then lists the items that she would not “do such a deed” for; fine white linen, gowns, petticoats, caps e. t. c. This could be just the character’s view, or it could be Shakespeare speaking through Emilia to mock the women whose lives and minds are taken up with such “petty exhibitions” as Emilia calls them.
Or it could even be Shakespeare using Emilia’s opinion as a tool to show women that there is more to life than this sort of materialism. The rest of Emilia’s speech can be summed up in a few basics points: that if men go to other women, become jealous of or strike their wives (“and pour our treasures into foreign laps”) it is their fault if their wives stray, that women will follow the example of their husbands (if men behave badly, is it unlikely that women will behave badly too? ), and that women are equal to men in every respect.Their wives have sense like them: they see, and smell, and have their palates both for sweet and sour as husbands have”. In ‘Shakespeare’s Division of Experience’ by Marilyn French, the author says “One effect of Emilia’s speech is to counter the attitudes of the males in the play.
” She then later says that the one thing the men do not do is “see women as human beings. ” To a large extent this is true – human beings are made up of both positive and negative traits, with the men in ‘Othello’ being able to accept a mixture of these qualities in each other but not in women.They either perceive women as being perfection in itself or wholly bad, distrustful and sinful. Othello’s opinion of Desdemona is the most obvious example of this, his views swinging from her being the sweetest, quietest creature alive to his later outburst “O though black weed, why art thou so lovely fair? I took you for that cunning whore of Venice.
” Because in Act 4 Scene 4 Desdemona and Emilia are alone together, they feel able to bring out all parts of their personality.In Elizabethan England the general psychology was that of the Self vs. the Other, the Self being the traditional white, middle-class male, with women, slaves and blacks being grouped together as the Other. The Other was to be despised through fear and feared through despite.
In ‘Othello’ Shakespeare challenges these views by making an example of the Other, a Moor, the cultured hero and the white Self the foul-mouthed villain. Similarly, the women (particularly Emilia) and given strong characters that protest against the system.However, given the traditional views of the audience that were likely to be held, Shakespeare could never allow these strong female characters to partake in the ‘happy ending’ awarded to the Self. They all become controlled in some manner, a few examples being Hermia, Helena and Titania (‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’), Lady Macbeth (‘Macbeth’), Ophilia (‘Hamlet’) and Rosalind (‘As You Like It’).
These people all end the play married or killed.In ‘Othello’, Othello himself changes from the learned, cultured man to the stereotypical black man (acting upon feeling rather than knowledge). However, the debate still remains that either Shakespeare is ‘putting down’ feminist ideas by having these controlled and broken by the end of the play, or that he is in support of those ideas and is using the characters of Emilia and the early Othello (who will be corrupted by the self, thus turning the audience’s world on its head) to support them.Indeed, by even allowing these characters to air their views in their own rights surely counts as a vote of encouragement for their causes.
The play could be used as evidence for either argument, with Act 4 Scene 3 being crucial to the plot, pivotal to the roles of the women, and its dramatic quality heightened by the possibility of it being a medium for Shakespeare’s own views at that period.