Supper was over and they all got up. Lodovico thanked Othello and was about to say goodnight when Othello invited him to take a walk on the battlements.
‘No thank you,’ he said. ‘Don’t trouble yourself any further with me.’
‘Humour me,’ said Othello. ‘A walk will do me good.’
Lodovico nodded. He turned to Desdemona. ‘Madam, good night. I humbly thank your ladyship.’
‘Your honour is most welcome,’ she said.
Othello placed his hand on Lodovico’s back. ‘Will you walk, Sir?’
They started walking, then Othello turned. ‘Oh Desdemona,’ he said.
‘Go straight to bed. I’ll be back soon. Dismiss your attendant. Make sure you do it.’
‘I will, my lord,’ she said.
Emilia was waiting for her in the bedroom. She had seen Othello and Lodovico leaving, Othello smiling graciously with his guest. ‘How are you now?’ she said. ‘He looks gentler than he did.’
Desdemona smiled sadly. ‘He says he’ll be back soon. He’s told me to go to bed, and told me to dismiss you.’
‘That was his instruction. Therefore, good Emilia, get me my night dress and goodnight. We mustn’t do anything to displease him now.’
‘I wish you’d never seen him.’
‘And I don’t! I love him so much that even his stubbornness, his reprimands, his frowns – just unpin me – appeal to me.’
‘I’ve put those wedding sheets on the bed.’
‘It makes no difference. It’s funny; how foolish we are! If I die before you, please shroud me in one of these sheets.’
‘Come come,’ said Emilia. ‘What kind of talk is that?’ She began undressing her mistress.
Desdemona sighed. ‘My mother had a maid called Barbary.’ ‘She was in love, and the man she loved proved to be mad, and forsook her. She had a song about a willow, an old song, it was, and she died singing it. I can’t get that song out of my mind tonight. I just feel like going and hanging my head down and singing it, like poor Barbary. Please, get on with it.’
‘Shall I get your night dress?’
‘No, unpin me here.’ She stood still as Emilia unpinned her dress. ‘Lodovico’s an attractive man,’ she said.
‘A very handsome man,’ said Emilia.
‘He speaks well,’ said Desdemona.
‘I know a lady in Venice who would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a kiss from him,’ said Emilia.
Desdemona hummed softly then began to sing:
‘The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow;
The fresh streams ran by her and murmured her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her and softened the stones – ‘ She stepped out of her dress. ‘Put this away,’ she said and returned to her singing: ‘Sing willow, willow, willow… Hurry up; he’ll be here soon – Sing all a green willow, must be my garland.
Let no-body blame him; his scorn I approve – No, that doesn’t come next. Listen. Who’s knocking?’
‘It’s the wind,’ said Emilia.
‘I called my love false love, but what said he then?
Sing willow, willow, willow:
If I court more women, you’ll couch with more men; So go now. My eyes are itching. Does that mean I’m going to cry?’
‘It’s neither here nor there,’ said Emilia.
‘I’ve been told it does. Oh these men, these men! Do you really think – tell me Emilia – are there women who abuse their husbands in that terrible way?’
‘There’s no question, there are some.’
‘Would you do such a thing for all the world?’
Emilia laughed. ‘Wouldn’t you?’
‘No! By this heavenly light.’
‘Nor would I by this heavenly light. I might do it in the dark, though!’
‘But would you do such a thing for all the world?’
‘The world’s a huge thing: it’s a great price for such a small vice.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ said Desdemona. ‘I don’t think you would.’
‘I think I would, and immediately undo it. But seriously, I wouldn’t do such a thing for a ring, or property, or dresses or petticoats, nor hats, nor any objects of vanity. But for all the whole world! For pity’s sake, who wouldn’t make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I would risk purgatory for it.’
‘Shame on me if I would do such a wrong for the whole world!’ cried Desdemona.
Emilia laughed. ‘Why, a wrong of that kind is only a wrong in the world, and getting the whole world for your trouble it would be a wrong in a world that’s your own and so you could very quickly make it right.’
‘I don’t think there is any such woman,’ said Desdemona.
‘Oh, there are dozens,’ said Emilia. ‘But I really do think it’s their husbands’ fault if a wife falls. What if they neglect their duty and allow their treasure to be poured into the laps of other men? Or have peevish outbursts of jealousy, restricting us? Or let’s say they hit us or look down on what they used to like? The fact is we have gall as well as grace and need to get our own back. Husbands ought to know that their wives are no different from them: they see and smell, they have the same palates, sensitive to sweet and sour, just as their husbands’ are. What’s going on when they exchange us for others? Is it for fun? I think it is. And is it brought on by desire? I think it is. And isn’t it weakness that causes it? I think that too. And don’t we have desires, the need for fun, and aren’t we weak, just as men are? So they should be good to us, because they should understand that the bad things we do are learnt from them.’
She had finished preparing her mistress for bed. Desdemona waved her away. ‘Good night, good night. May God help me not to follow bad examples but to improve myself by them.’