A Dream of Gender Equality and its Messy Materialization

At the end of Act IV scene iii, Emilia breaks it to Desdemona that women are not as decent as Desdemona has conceptualized, and generalized, them to be.  Desdemona is appalled at Othello for calling her a whore—and unjustly at that.  Desdemona says to Emilia, “Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong/ For the whole world,” to which Emilia responds with a level-head, “Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’th’ world, and having/ the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your own world, and/ you might quickly make it right” (4.3.76-80).  Emilia appeals to the rationale of cheating; the world is not how Desdemona imagines it—that world is one made of ideals, and ideals have messy materializations in the real world which hardly resemble the original conception.  Emilia is an advocate for gender equality as she provides many logical explanations as to why a woman should be pardoned for cheating: “I do think it is their husbands’ faults/ If wives do fall.  Say that they slack their duties,/ And pour our treasures into foreign laps…What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/…And have not we affections,/Desire for sport, and frailty, as men have?” (4.3.84-86 94-95 98-99).  Emilia’s speech to Desdemona is effective in that it humanizes females, as females are belittled in the patriarchal time that Shakespeare wrote in.  She basically asks, Why is it okay for men to cheat, but if a woman cheats she is reduced to a whore? Women are not men’s lapdogs, but human beings, who, too, have desires and are capable of making mistakes.  Emilia adds, “Then let them use us well, else let them know/The ills we do, their ills instruct us so” (4.3.100-101).  She employs logos here by saying that the only reason we know of the option to cheat is because you, hypothetical husband, have shown me what it is by cheating on me. 
    I have said that Emilia’s speech is effective in humanizing females in a patriarchal context, but only to attentive readers.  The speech, however, is not affective to the intended recipient, Desdemona.  After the speech, Desdemona refutes Emilia’s rationale, “Good night, good night.  God me such uses send/ Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend!” (4.3.102-103).  Desdemona sticks to her idealistic conception of the world; she believes it is better to just fix the bad from the start, rather than to compromise one’s values and pick from malevolent options.  To just simply fix the bad, as Desdemona puts it, materializes to be a task that is not so simple.  By sticking to her ideals, by refuting Othello’s charges against her of being a whore, Othello is only enraged the more because he has already labeled her as such in his mind, thus her confessions of what is actually the truth comes off as lies.  Desdemona’s reluctance to submit to Emilia’s rationale, to “pick bad from bad,” ultimately leads to her demise.  Desdemona is an ideal, and with her materialization and the trials that follow, we are left with a  bloody mess.

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One thought on “A Dream of Gender Equality and its Messy Materialization

  1. Jordan White

    I like how you bring up how Desdemona could have saved herself if she had listened to Emilia’s plea about how women are viewed. When I had originally read the scene with the handkerchief, I couldn’t stop myself from considering how the plot might be different if Emilia did not give it to Iago. Would Othello feel secure in his position to accuse Desdemona of adultery with Cassio? Without the handkerchief, no concrete evidence is ever presented to Othello about the supposed affair. If Emilia had pleaded a little more with Desdemona during the scene you illuminate, and if Emilia didn’t give Iago the handkerchief, would the story still be a tragedy?

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