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Act IV, Scene 3
In this short scene, Othello entertains Lodovico and other guests at dinner. Both he and Desdemona have recovered sufficiently to be the pleasant host and hostess. After dinner, Othello orders Desdemona to dismiss her maid and go to bed at once, promising to join her soon. Desdemona obeys, departing immediately for her chamber. There she tells Emilia to dress her in her wedding dress and asks her to sing the willow song, which her mother’s maid used to sing to her. In conversation with Emilia, Desdemona reveals her continued, deep love for Othello.
Emilia is reluctant to leave her mistress alone, but Desdemona insists. Before Emilia goes, however, she spreads on the bed the sheets that were used on the wedding night, as her mistress has requested. As she helps her mistress to undress, she notices that Desdemona cannot think clearly; she seems bewildered and only half-awake. She continues to sing the old willow song; then Desdemona explains that the maid who taught her the song lost her lover to madness and then died herself. Then in a premonition, she tells Emilia that if she should die, she wants the wedding sheets to serve as her shroud.
Desdemona cannot stop thinking about her husband’s accusation. She says to Emilia that it seems impossible to her that any woman would do such an evil thing as to be unfaithful. Emilia says that it is sometimes justifiable, considering the way most men treat their wives. Desdemona swears she could never be unfaithful to Othello. She then sends Emilia away and goes to sleep with a light left burning beside her.
This calm, static scene, almost a pause in the action, shows Desdemona’s innocence, sorrow, and continued love for Othello. It serves as the quiet before the final storm. The soft melancholy of the Willow Song and the explanation about the maid who taught her to sing it are a reflection of Othello’s madness and a foreshadowing of Desdemona’s sure death.
The scene also gives a sharp contrast between the naive Desdemona and the worldly Emilia. Desdemona cannot believe that any wife could betray her husband as Othello has charged her of doing. She swears she could never be unfaithful. When she tells these thoughts to Emilia, the maid laughs and says that most men deserve infidelity. It is clear that she has no illusions about men or fidelity, and she speaks her mind clearly that women should have the same rights as their husbands.
Emilia, once again in this scene, continues to redeem herself. Besides bringing some humor to a sad and pathetic scene, she is genuinely concerned about her distraught mistress and does not want to leave her alone. She also answers the requests of Desdemona, even laying out the wedding sheets, which her mistress wants to wear as a shroud. After Emilia helps her to undress, Desdemona bids goodnight to her friend and says her prayers.