Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act 4

There’s an old bar joke that goes like this.  A man walks up to a well-dressed woman and says: would you sleep with me for $10,000?  The woman is a little taken aback but says: I’m not really… $10,000?... ok, sure.  Then the man says: will you do it for free?  And she replies: certainly not, what kind of woman do you think I am?  And the guy responds: we’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over the price.  It’s an old joke.  It’s corny; it’s sexist; it’s bawdy.  Shakespeare would have loved it.  This kind of stuff is right down his alley.  The end of Act 4 of Othello has a masterpiece of a conversation specifically on this theme.  Desdemona and Emilia are discussing a song about infidelity.  Desdemona starts off the discussion like this: Oh, these men, these men!  Dost thou in conscience think (tell me, Emilia) That there be women do abuse their husbands…?  There’s a “translation” called No Fear Shakespeare that puts the question in modern language: Do you honestly think (tell me, Emilia) there are women who cheat on their husbands…?  Emilia informs her that there are indeed women in the world who cheat on their husbands.  Desdemona puts their little talk on more personal terms and asks: would you do it for all the world?  Emilia replies I wouldn’t do it for a nice ring, or fine linen, or pretty gowns or petticoats or hats. But for the whole world? Who wouldn’t cheat on her husband to make him king? I’d risk my soul for that.  Emilia is kind of like the woman in the old bar joke, but also not like her.  Emilia can be bought off but she’s not just haggling over price.  She actually has a fairly sophisticated philosophical argument that justifies infidelity.  In modern translation: a bad action is just wrong in this world, but when you’ve won the whole world, it’s a wrong in your own world, so you can make it right then.  In other words, who makes the rules about right and wrong?  Or put another way: what makes something right or wrong in the first place?  If I’m in charge do I get to decide for everyone?  These are all questions for philosophy and we’ll touch on this topic in our next reading by the philosopher David Hume (Of Justice and Injustice).  But within the context of this play infidelity is not a philosophical problem.  It’s a human dilemma.  And it’s filled with interesting speculations on sex, violence and money; topics which still thrill audiences all over the world.  In this play Emilia is the one who gets to do the speculating about why a woman might be unfaithful to her husband: For instance, our husbands may stop sleeping with us and give it out to other women instead. Or they may get insanely jealous and keep us from going anywhere. Or let’s say they hit us or cut back on the money they give us out of spite. This is the kind of talk that would get Chaucer’s Wife of Bath churning.  You can almost hear her wanting to jump in: Let me tell you about my five husbands!  Why, honey…  But Shakespeare isn’t Chaucer and Emilia isn’t the Wife of Bath.  Emilia doesn’t use such blunt language.  And besides, Emilia is more interested in the refined psychology of relationships between men and women.  The Wife of Bath has one goal: she wants to be in charge of her marriage.  Oh, and she wants lots of sex too.  Emilia has a much more modest goal.  She says: We (women) have feelings. We may be able to forgive our husbands but we want to get back at them too. Husbands need to know that their wives are human beings too.  Emilia may feel this way simply because she’s married to a man like Iago.  We can only imagine how the Wife of Bath and Iago would work things out if they were married.  You can almost hear her saying: give me back that handkerchief or I’ll kick you where you won’t be able to have sex for a month.  Or something even more blunt.  In short, the Wife of Bath knows what she wants from a man and she knows how to get it.  Emilia also knows what makes men tick: Why do they replace us with other women? Do they do it for fun? I think they do. Is it out of lust? I think so. Is it a weakness? It is.  Emilia and the Wife of Bath have been around the block once or twice.  Not so Desdemona.  She’s innocent as Eve in the Garden.  Like Eden, this story may not end well.


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