Dedesmona and Iago (3.4)
A Third Misconstrual
Despite Emilia's suggestion that jealousy might be at issue in Othello's conduct and Othello's increasingly erratic behavior, Desdemona can only conclude that it is the "wonder" in the handkerchief that has so afflicted her husband (3.4.101). While she will not be instructed by Emilia, however, she will listen to Iago as he steers her to a third misconstrual.
Iago is silent as Desdemona patiently tells Cassio that her "lord" is out of sorts ("My lord is not my lord"--3.4.124). She explains that she has spoken "for you all my best,/ And stood within the blank of his displeasure/ For my free speech (3.4.127-129)." Iago quickly picks up on her words, "Is my lord angry (3.4.131)?" Rather than dismissing or ignoring him as she did Emilia, she responds, "He went hence but now;/ And certainly in strange unquietness (3.4.132-133)." So, Iago repeats his question, "Can he be angry?"
Of course Iago knows the answer to the question. Of course Othello is angry. He has been angry ever since 3.3 where Iago got him to sputter in apoplectic rage that he would avenge Desdemona's infidelity (see Outrage). Three times in his six lines Iago hints, with apparent surprise, at Othello's anger (3.4.134,137,139). Indeed, Iago saw Othello in battle when Othello's own brother was "puff'd" by cannon fire, and Othello remained calm (though the word "calm" is never used it is certainly implied). It must be "something of moment then" which is harrassing him (3.4.138).
Iago's words meet with much greater acceptance in Desdemona than Emilia's. "Something sure of state...hath puddled his clear spirit (3.4.140-143)," is her immediate conclusion. Positing jealousy is just too big a jump for Desdemona, too much of a frightening leap into an uncertain abyss. Anger and "something of moment" sound much more palatable. And so, with Iago having departed, she begins her interpretive process around the issue of some matter of state going awry that has affected her husband. Three things characterize Desdemona's beautiful short speech of self-deception--her third misconstrual. First, she gives an analogy from the human body. Second, she provides a maxim of life in general. Third, she uses legal terminology to confirm that her first suspicion (Othello's unkindness) was incorrect. Each helps to solidify this new and final misconstrual.
First, she concludes that Othello's anger at her even while he is afflicted by a matter of state is perfectly explicable. "'Tis even so;/ For let our finger ache, and it endues/ Our other healthful members even to a sense/ Of pain (3.4.145-148)." Desdemona was not the only one to argue this. In the language of St. Paul, "If one member suffers, all suffer together (I Cor 12:26)." Othello is wrangling with her, a "inferior thing," while a great thing is truly his object (3.4.144-145). She has taken Iago's oblique suggestion and made it the cornerstone of her interpretation.
Second, she draws an analogy from human nature, to the effect that one is not to expect perfection from men in ordinary circumstances. "Nay, we must think men are not gods,/ Nor of them look for such observancy/ As fits the bridal (3.4.148-150)." Devoted attention may be expected on the wedding day, but the asperities of life and the weakness of men wear us down. The thought is similar to an arresting one from Measure for Measure: "They say best men are moulded out of faults./ And for the most, become much more the better/ For being a little bad (MfM 5.1.439-441)." Neither Shakespeare nor Desdemona expects perfection from people. 'Maybe,' Desdemona thinks, 'this is just such a sign of imperfection.'
But note how she is slowly losing a grip on reality with this maxim. While one might have assented to the first pithy statement (Othello's anger as displaced from great matter of state to her), the second is more of a stretch. Indeed, what is at stake here is not Othello's perfection but his basic humanity. In other words, Othello's treatment of Desdemona can only be understood as a demeaning and intolerant personal attack and affront. For Desdemona to explain it in the context of humanity's inevitable falling short of perfection is to cover too much of Othello's fault.
Third, she uses a legal metaphor to convince herself that she is mistaken about her husband. "I was/ ....arraigning his unkindness with my soul,/ But now I find I had suborn'd the witness,/ And he's indicted falsely (3.4.151-154)." In other words, she likens her mental process of assessing blame (cf. 3.4.98--"I' faith, you are to blame") to the process of suborning perjury (a crime at common law and a statutory crime today). She had, as it were, 'arrested' Othello for his unkindness ("Arraigning his unkindness") and was about to induce herself to commit perjury ("suborn'd the witness") by proclaiming Othello's actions unkind indeed, but then she realized that he was indicted falsely (because he is wrestling with affairs of state and not being unkind), and consequently she must drop all charges.
Just as a threefold chain is not quickly broken, so Desdemona's threefold manner of convincing herself that matters of state are at issue and her threefold misconstrual of Othello's action make her unable to see things in a different way. Emilia's third mention of jealousy (3.4.156) followed by a fourfold use of "jealious" in the next five lines is unable to budge her from her settled conviction that Othello is preoccupied with great things, and that his unkindness toward her and pained expressions are simply the reflection of that reality. Later she will confess her undying love for Othello as well as his unkindness--"Unkindness may do much,/ And his unkindness may defeat my life,/ But never taint my love--4.2.159-161," but here she is not even willing to admit unkindness. While Emilia seems committed and even obedient to her husband Iago, she complains about men; Desdemona will be obedient and will rarely even complain. She is fully bound to the visage she saw in his mind.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long