Desdemona Willow Song Analysis Essay


La Chanson du Saule de l’Othello de Shakespeare présente un réseau complexe de processus mimétiques: un acteur enfant joue le rôle féminin de Desdémone, qui imite le chant d’une servante nommée Barbara dont la chanson décrivait les plaintes d’un amoureux chantant ou soupirant au pied d’un arbre. L’impression laissée sur le public de la Renaissance par la scène de la mort de Desdémone incarnée par un jeune acteur semble bien avoir été aussi forte que le souvenir du chant de Barbara sur le personnage – c’est même ce détail « réaliste » qui permet au personnage d’Emilia de mener plus loin encore le processus mimétique grâce à la métaphore du chant du cygne.

Le xixème siècle a vu ce processus mimétique se prolonger grâce à l’opéra éponyme de Rossini, écrit en 1816. Cet article se penche sur le passage d’une relation métonymique entre le personnage théâtral et sa représentation par la soprano Maria Malibran à une relation métaphorique qui a progressivement substitué la chanteuse au personnage de Desdémone. Au point que la scène du Saule, qui avait été purement et simplement excisée de l’univers scénique anglais, y a été réintroduite sous l’influence de la version lyrique, restituant ainsi une voix adulte à un personnage qui avait longtemps été réduit à une femme-enfant presque dénuée d’identité vocale. La Desdémone de Verdi ferme ce cycle en se présentant comme un personnage dont la maturité vocale nourrit le pouvoir affectif bien au-delà des moyens du théâtre parlé.

The Willow Song in Shakespeare’s Othello involves a complex intertwining of mimetic processes: a boy actor enacts the female Desdemona, who imitates a maid called Barbary singing an old ditty, while the original singer referred to herself as a singing (or sighing) lover sitting at the foot of a tree. The boy’s performance of Desdemona’s death left a lasting impression on early modern audiences, just as Barbary’s singing death did on the character of Desdemona – a detail which enables the dying Emilia to put a finishing touch on the mimetic process by comparing herself to Desdemona, and both of them to the swan, who only sings when she is about to die.

The mimetic process was carried further in the 19th century, thanks to the operatic version written by Rossini in 1816. This paper examines the evolution from a metonymical relationship between the theatrical character and its representation by the singer Maria Malibran to a metaphorical relationship that actually substituted Malibran to Desdemona. With the result that the scene, which had purely and simply been excised from the English stage-world, was gradually reintroduced under the influence of the operatic version, thus restoring an adult voice to a character that had long been reduced to a child-bride almost devoid of vocal identity. Verdi’s Desdemona then appears as a fully matured character whose emotional power is fuelled by her vocal prowess.

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Othello, Willow Song, Maria Malibran, melancholy, harp, opera, Stendhal, Alfred de Musset, Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi

Keywords :

Othello, Willow Song, Maria Malibran, mélancolie, harpe, opéra, Stendhal, Alfred de Musset, Gioacchino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi

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1Performed as they were by boys whose actual age still remains a matter of scholarly disagreement, Shakespeare’s major female roles display considerable variation in length. Yet it is generally agreed that the development of such characters is linked to the quality of the boy actors available at the time of composition. There is no doubt that the female parts in Antony and Cleopatra (running at 678 lines) or As you Like It (685 lines) were written for a young actor whose voice was both able to carry in the Globe auditorium and not at risk of overstraining, enabling him to assume a number of lines that exceeds by a considerable amount those of a part like Ophelia’s (173 lines). And the well-known meta-theatrical allusion that Shakespeare gives to Cleopatra about the “squeaking” actors who will “boy” her “greatness / I' the posture of a whore” on the Roman stage (AC, v.ii.215-16) implies that the actor speaking the words said them in a voice sufficiently deep and sonorous to avoid becoming the butt of his own joke – although scholars appear unable to convince each other as to whether Cleopatra was played by a boy with a clear treble making an overt insider joke (Stephen Orgel), or by an apprentice who had reached the apex of his learning process and whose voice had stabilized in an unambiguously deep register (Richard Madelaine), or whether the author had not deliberately played on the vocal instability of an adolescent whose voice was still in the process of breaking (Gina Bloom).1

2In terms of numbers of lines, the part of Desdemona belongs to a category closer to Rosalind than to Ophelia, with her 391 lines. It is however strikingly shorter than Othello’s at 890 lines - not to mention Iago’s 1100. Both Ophelia and Desdemona must have been played originally by a boy who could sing - which makes it more likely that he was a treble than in the case of Cleopatra. And both Ophelia and Desdemona illustrate Shakespeare’s idiosyncratic use of song to reinforce pathos, as has been pointed out by most specialists of Shakespeare and music. “The Willow Song in Othello is a supreme example of the tragic lyric, an exceptional device of Shakespeare’s own creation” Sternfeld writes, and “few critics […] would want to deny that the scene […] loses immeasurably in its pathos without the song” Lindley asserts.2

3The Willow Song, hummed as it were by Desdemona at the end of act IV as she prepares to go to bed, has a function comparable to other occurrences in the canon where music is woven into the fabric of tragedy, as when Brutus listens to his boy sing before the ghost of Caesar appears to him in Julius Caesar iv.iii. Yet there are major differences, for the Willow song is not only sung by the character itself, but also structures a scene of remarkable female intimacy. Desdemona is getting undressed with the help of Emilia, and is about to get into a bed she has asked her lady in waiting to make with her wedding-sheets, which she well-nigh expects to use as a funeral shroud. The song does not therefore constitute a suspension of time and therefore of dramatic tension as in the case of the one sung by a sleepy page for Brutus or by an ironic Feste for Orsino (in Twelfth Night ii.iv). It is in fact unlikely that Emilia or Desdemona would have accompanied the song on the lute, since they are both too busy with the unpinning of Desdemona’s clothing.3 The ballad is sung almost absent-mindedly by a character whose lines emphasize the associations the audience is invited to notice: the song “Will not go from [her] mind” (iv.iii.31) because it was sung by Barbary, a maid whose name suggest she was African, and who was forsaken by her lover.

4That the song is an “earworm”, according to the German expression for a tune that the listener cannot get out of his head, can be verified in the way the song is constantly interrupted by Desdemona’s instructions to Emilia, just as their conversation had been at the beginning of the scene.4 And it is clear that Desdemona pays more attention to the tune than to the text when she realizes that she has mixed the lines and confused the sequence of verses (“Nay that’s not next”, iv.iii.53). Yet, in the situation referred to here, the interruption is projected onto an external element, as Desdemona believes she has heard someone knocking. The trivial realization that it was probably only the wind may well be the reason why she substitutes the right words with a stanza akin to Ophelia’s bawdy snatches of song: “If I court moe women, you’ll couch with moe men” (iv.iii.57), a line invented by Shakespeare that has intrigued psychoanalysts ever since Freud’s article on jealousy published in 1932.5 The line can be construed as an absurd invitation to systematic infidelity by a distracted lover, for, as Desdemona tells us, “He she lov’d prov’d mad” (iv.iii.27). The substitution may denote just as much a slow drift towards madness as an attempt to rationalize the behaviour of Othello, whose jealousy would then be seen as an incentive to cheat on him. This is the very theme developed by Emilia in response to Desdemona’s anguish in the second half of the scene, when she eloquently explains how unfaithful wives simply reflect in their behaviour the contempt their husbands display toward them. The conclusion of the scene summarizes her thesis in a neat reformulation of the final couplet of the Song: “The ills we do, their ills instruct us so” (iv.iii.103).

5As has often been observed, Shakespeare is in effect re-establishing balance before the catastrophe: in the face of Emilia’s immoral stance, Desdemona is reaffirming her unconditional love for Othello and her repulsion for infidelity, and she does so far more efficiently through the use of song than through her earlier protestations. Although some of the dialogue in the first part of the play may well have established her as a “super-subtle Venetian” (i.iii.371), this intimate scene should leave the spectator in no doubt as to her values and feelings.6

6One of the few testimonies left by English Renaissance theatre-goers documents precisely the lasting impression made by the character of Desdemona on the public. Henry Jackson wrote in september 1610: “At vero Desdemona illa apud nos a marito occisa, quanquam optime semper causam egit, interfecta tamen magis movebat; cum in lecto decumbens spectantium misericordiam ipso vultu imploraret.”7 There has been much discussion as to whether the use of the words “Desdemona illa” was a marker of the fame of the actor (according to Lois Potter, who wrote a Performance History of Othello in 2002) or that of the character (according to Michael Neill, who edited the 2006 OUP version).8 Much has also been made by Stephen Orgel and others of the use of the feminine form about a male actor to point out the implications of cross-dressing for Early Modern English society and the construction of gender.9 Since the sentence does not contain any element that refers to the staging, it is actually more likely that Jackson was referring to the character and not the actor, hence the use of the feminine. But the crux of the matter is that the actor who enacted “Desdemona illa” probably displayed the same characteristics as the actors in the boy companies such as the Children of Paul’s, albeit with a different status since he belonged to an adult company. The boys in the children’s companies were originally choristers, chosen for their musical talent and the beauty of their voice, able to entertain and move audiences as much through their singing as through their acting, and this may well have been one of the original Desdemona’s claims to fame.

7Yet Jackson does not dwell on this aspect, which might suggest that he did not see the original version. This is because throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, English audiences never had an opportunity to see the Willow scene as it had originally been designed. The scene is far more developed in the Folio (1623) than in the Quarto (1622), lasting 112 lines versus 62, just about half the length. Thirteen lines of the Willow Song are quoted in the Folio whereas the Quarto only includes a passing reference to it, and Emilia’s proto-feminist defence of women’s choice is all but suppressed. As Lois Potter documents, the 18th century favoured this truncated version, in fact shortening it again and again to the point of sometimes completely doing away with the scene, thereby depriving the character of Desdemona of much of its interest, and putting off the major English tragic actresses like Sarah Siddons or Ellen Terry, who considered the part as that of an innocent passive victim, suitable only for actresses specializing in the pathetic register. Surprisingly, the part of Emilia, however shortened, was often preferred to that of Desdemona.

8In an article published in 200710, Denise A. Walen examines the differences between Quarto and Folio and challenges the explanations usually put forward to account for them, ie that the voices of the boys who played the parts of Desdemona and Emilia had broken, or that they had left the company. She posits that the change was linked to the move from the open stage of the Globe to the more intimate setting of the Blackfriars, where a long scene involving undressing would have slowed down the pace of the action, at a period where a new brand of sensationalism had become the norm, especially for act endings. The abridgement and gradual suppression of the scene in the 18th and 19th centuries then had probably more to do with questions of propriety, not to mention the issue of set-changing. In short, it was not deemed decent to show a lady getting undressed, discussing her wedding-sheets and singing licentious verses while her servant made the case for adultery.

9Over and beyond these aspects, Walen underlines that there was no real need to maintain a relatively long musical number at the Blackfriars since performances routinely included musical interludes before the play began and between each act, which served just as well to relieve the dramatic tension.11 Another point Walen makes is that the dozen or so lines of the Willow Song included by Shakespeare in the scene were written in as a sample and guide for the performer, who would, for Emilia to have time to remove the countless pins that held her skirts and corset together, have had to sing far more than only three and half stanzas.12

10At least two musical versions of the Willow Song are extant, one earlier and one later than the play, while two Broadside ballads provide the lyrics. These antedate the play and contain no less than 11 verses, of which the Shakespearean text in fact represents a variant. So the song was indeed familiar to the audience, and it may well be that at the Blackfriars the consort in charge of entertaining the audience between acts played an instrumental version before act IV, so that Emilia’s reference could be understood even if the song was not actually sung by Desdemona in the shortened version.

11A close scrutiny of the lyrics and the comments made by Desdemona about them reveals several shifts. In the original song, a male lover is forsaken by his female beloved, whereas Desdemona sings about a weeping young woman, sung about by another young woman. Moreover, the lyrics describe a character in a pose typical of melancholy love: “Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee.” Yet this posture cannot be found literally in Renaissance iconography – it would imply an individual completely huddled up, their face concealed and looking rather unpicturesque. Desdemona makes the image clearer when she claims she is tempted to take on the same posture before beginning to sing: “I have much to do, / But to go hang my head all at one side, / And sing it like poor Barbary.” The pose Desdemona suggests corresponds more closely to the conventional representation of Melancholy, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia 1 (1514). A triple mimesis is at work here: Desdemona imitates Barbary singing, while the original singer describes herself as a singing (or sighing) lover sitting at the foot of a tree.13 And Barbary dies singing – a detail which enables the dying Emilia to put a finishing touch on the mimetic process by comparing herself to Desdemona, and both of them to the swan who only sings when she is about to die.14

12But what is this tree the song focuses on? The “poor soul” is not sitting by a willow but by a sycamore – no doubt because of the commonplace pun it allows with the words sick-amour, also to be found in act I of Romeo and Julie15– but also because of a more topical pun on the Sick-a-Moor.16 And the repeated use of the word willow both in the chorus and within the verses points toeuphony as much as to symbol. Renaissance ballads were fond of such repetitive patterns, using individual words like “Pity” in the famous ballad of Daphne or onomatopoeias, as in the equally famous ballad of The Three Ravens.17 Here the word is used an extraordinary nine times per verse, its liquid sounds, the assonance with the word Woe and the downward melodic patterns making it a perfect illustration of the principle of “word painting”, as if the song were a popular version of the “Lachrymae” motif.18 Yet the song cannot refer to a weeping willow, for these trees were only introduced to England in the 18th century. Shakespeare or Spenser’s associations of the willow with woe and weeping probably stem from Psalm 137, although in both cases the tree referred to is probably a poplar, which belongs to the same genus but does not present the falling branches that are so suggestive of flowing tears.19

13This shift from the sycamore to the willow, two trees which have very little in common except the fact their names gave rise to confusion about their biblical forbears, is echoed by a series of shifts in the iconography of the character of Desdemona in the 19th century. Take Henry Singleton’s late 18th century engraving  of the singing Desdemona20, which is set in a bedroom and shows the characters in a naturalistic pose. This is undoubtedly an illustration of the text since it has been established that the scene was never acted with the song in English theatres. Desdemona has become a “silent musician”21, although the title opts for the 1630 quarto reading “the poor soul sat singing.” In an early 19th century engraving, on the contrary, the song seems to have been extracted from the play: Song of Poor Barbara22 displays the heroine of the song, not even the maid Barbary, and there is nothing African or even exotic about the female represented here. However the composition is clearly a Melancholia, and the character is merely shown sighing at the foot of a weeping willow, thereby losing the mise en abyme that the typographical error would have made possible. The only meta-theatrical detail to be found here is the presence of a frieze below the text representing Barbara’s gravestone. By the time we reach the Preraphaelites, the song has been completely interiorized, and it is Desdemona herself who is represented in the posture of the forsaken melancholy lover described in Barbary’s song, in the conspicuous absence of musical or even vegetable references, as in Leighton’s Desdemona (1888)23 and Desdemona’s Death Song, (ca 1880) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.24

14However these depictions of Desdemona are not by far the most popular one the 19th century produced. For the most famous of all is the one embodied by Maria Malibran who was portrayed countless times as Desdemona, mostly in the form of variations on an original painting made in 1830 by Henri Decaisnethat belongs to the collections of the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.25 Since this is a portrait of the most renowned opera singer of the century, of the very first Diva, it is clear that we are not presented with a “silent musician” but on the contrary with a tribute to an exceptional voice and above all to an actor who inspired many tragedians thanks to her passionate interpretation of the part of Desdemona. This is indicated by the harp she absent-mindedly holds in her left hand, while her head reclines on her right hand in yet another variation on the posture of melancholy.

15This portrait with a harp actually has a precedent in the form of the picture of Isabella Colbran, the famed coloratura mezzo-soprano and star of the Teatro San Carlo de Naples, who was both the wife of the composer Gioacchino Rossini and the first operatic Desdemona.26 Both Malibran and Colbran were heroines no longer of a Shakespearean tragedy but of an opera that reigned over the European stage for over sixty years before it was ousted by Verdi’s masterpiece.

16This is where the continental tradition steps in, more particularly the translation into French made by Jean-François Ducis in 1792, which was the basis for the libretto written by the Marchese Berio di Salsa for Rossini. Composed in 1816, the same year as The Barber of Seville, by a 26-year-old composer bubbling with creativity, Otello represents a landmark in the history of opera, due to its tragic ending and the dramatic quality of its composition, which was an endless source of inspiration to the painter Delacroix27. Ducis’s Othello, which was performed 70 times at the Comédie Française between 1799 and 1852, was one of the favourite roles of the celebrated tragedian Talma.

17Since the Willow scene was often cut in England for reasons of propriety, it would have been likely that the same should occur in France, where such matters were even more sensitive. The poet Alfred de Vigny for instance found it quite ludicrous that Ducis had replaced the handkerchief, that shockingly intimate piece of feminine lingerie, by the more conventional and acceptable misdelivered-unaddressed-letter. Victor Hugo also made endless fun of this ‘improvement’, which was carried over into Rossini’s opera, yet when Vigny attempted his own translation in 1829, he shied away from mentioning Desdemona’s sheets, and, in a footnote, endorsed Kean, Kemble, Macready and Young’s habit of censoring the ‘gross’ lines that, in his view, were not constitutive of Shakespeare’s – or for that matter Molière’s – genius.28 However Ducis was a great admirer of the Willow scene, and he even asked the popular composer Grétry to write a song sufficiently easy to sing for the actress who would play the part.29 In his complete works, published in 1824, he added nine further verses to the song in the appendix, suggesting that “this romance will please a few persons, especially gentle melancholy ladies who might enjoy singing it in solitude”30. This version of the Willow Song thus became a prerogative of untrained female voices, whose sound was probably not very different from the voice of the boy who played the part around 1610.

18In Ducis’s Romance du Saule, which Berio followed quite faithfully, Barbara, whose name has become Isaura, is both the singer Desdemona remembers and the protagonist of the song. She is no longer sitting by a sycamore tree but indeed by a willow (“Au pied d’un saule assise tristement”), and the tree has become the pivotal theme of the song. The mimetic tropes—“the fresh streams…murmured her moans”—and the correspondence between the heroine’s feelings and nature (“the mute birds sat by her made tame by her moan”) used in the song are developed not only by the lyrics (“L'aura tra i rami flebile / ne ripeteva il suon”31 ie “the breeze repeated its sounds amid the branches”) but through the music itself, describing as it does in trills and coloratura ornaments the tears shed by Isaura and the waves of the streams that echo them. The willow has become “love’s delight” and Isaura dies at the foot of the tree.

19The provident Ducis had arranged for his Hédelmone to accompany herself on the lute or on the guitar. Berio substitutes a harp and has the protagonist declare in her recitative that she intends to unite in her song the sighs of the maid and her own lament:

Oh tu del mio dolor dolce instrumento !
Io ti riprendo ancora ;
e unisco al mesto canto
i sospiri d’Isaura, ed il mio pianto.

20Did Berio remember Psalm 137 and its rich associations between song, grief, exile, river-banks, harps and willows? After all, the operatic Desdemona is in fact worried that Otello will be condemned to exile. Or did he opportunistically combine the medieval visual trope of the lady with the harp 32 with the habitual presence of such instruments on Italian stages – a detail pointed out by the novelist Stendhal?33 Be it as it may, the Romanza del Salice became Desdemona’s grand aria, the one all opera-lovers remembered, and this aria is inseparable from its lengthy harp introduction, which in effect articulates the implicit correlation with the Psalm and the grief of the exiled Jews. The connection was not lost on George Eliot, for instance, for in Daniel Deronda, she has the hero meet Miranda to the tune of the Gondolier’s song that precedes the aria (see below).34 And Psalm 137 was also to become an essential reference in Italy’s struggle for unity, in the form of the chorus “Va pensiero” composed by Verdi for his opera Nabucco in 1842, which includes the reference to the harp and willow:

Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,
Perché muta dal salice pendi?35

21Stendhal was not so fond of the aria, to which he preferred the ensemble pieces, but Alfred de Musset praised it lavishly: “La romance du Saule est la poésie même; c'est l'inspiration la plus élevée d'un des plus grands maîtres qui aient existé.”36 Yet the spirit of Shakespeare’s act IV scene 3 is greatly altered in the opera: Desdemona is not getting ready for bed, there is no unpinning business. Desdemona does indeed interrupt herself and get her lyrics wrong, but she does not substitute a bawdy conclusion to the last verse, only the expression of a foreboding of her own demise. The whole scene is built around a series of associations between the original singer, the text of the song, the looming storm, the wind that breaks the window-pane and above all the voice of a passing Gondolier whose song quotes two lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy.37 The lines from the story of Paolo and Francesca are a beautifully concise expression of longing for happiness past and were as familiar to Romantic audiences as the Willow Song to Early modern ones: “Nessun maggior dolor che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria”38 —although it has rightly been pointed out that the association of Desdemona with Francesca, “one of literature's most famous adulteresses”, makes the quotation somewhat incongruous.39 Yet the Rossinian Willow Song undoubtedly benefits from this Dantean introduction whose expressive power is enhanced by the sorrowful tonality of the Neapolitan-sounding melody and the dream-like quality of its tremolo violin orchestration.40

22In 1824, Stendhal was still under the impression left by the performance of Giuditta Pasta, whom he preferred to Colbran41; in 1829 Balzac has the heroine of La femme de trente ans sing the aria, and he compares herto both singers42; in 1839 Musset focused on Pauline Viardot’s performance. But it is the appropriation of the part byMalibran that imposed the image of a Desdemona singing the Willow Song with a harp in her hand, and in effect completely transformed the character and its vocal personality.

23Malibran was adulated in the whole of Europe, as much for the quality of her singing as for her physical beauty. Her early death at the age of 28 turned her into an icon, and the portrait made by Decaisne subsequently mutated into countless hagiographic variations, all bearing the title “rôle de Desdémone dans "Otello" de Rossini.”43 As Catherine Authier points out, this homely portrait contrasts strongly with contemporary eye-witness accounts.44 Maria Malibran was an extraordinary tragedian renowned for her daring stage motions and her expressionistic vocal style. Alfred de Musset’s description of her in the part was particularly eloquent:

elle s’abandonnait à tous les mouvements, à tous les gestes, à tous les moyens possibles de rendre sa pensée : elle riait, elle pleurait, se frappait le front, se décoiffait ; tout cela sans songer au parterre ; […] elle était vraie. Ces pleurs, ces rires, ces cheveux déroulés, étaient à elle, et ce n’était pas pour imiter telle ou telle actrice qu’elle se jetait par terre dans Otello.45

24The different versions of Othello and Otello on stage (both musical and dramatic), on page and on canvas obviously fed into each other throughout the century. A later avatar of the work involves another French painter, Théodore Chassériau, whose abundant illustrations highlight Desdemona’s toilette, which had been reinstated by Alfred de Vigny. One of the paintings in the series bears a similar title to the one of the painting by Decaisne, ie “La Malibran dans le rôle de Desdémone de l’Othello”.  Interestingly, however, the other paintings in the series omit the name of the singer, while using her as sole model. The process at work here takes us from the metonymical relationship between the theatrical character and its representation by Malibran to a metaphorical relationship that actually substitutes Malibran to Desdemona. In effect, an identification between the role, the song (materialized by the harp) and the singer. With the result that the scene, which had purely and simply been excised from the English stage-world, was gradually reintroduced under the influence of the operatic version, which was often performed in London, by Malibran and others, thus restoring an adult voice to a character that had long been reduced to a child-bride almost devoid of vocal identity.

25The overbearing place of Rossini’s opera in the European repertoire was an essential cause of Giuseppe Verdi’s reticence to writing his own Otello.46Yet it took but few years for the lyric-dramatic soprano of Verdi’s opera, first performed in 1887, to replace the romantic coloratura mezzo in the operatic world, during the very time when the dramatic part was regaining in depth and length. In fact, all three parts constitute to this day a casting challenge, since the highly dramatic vocal demands in the first three acts are utterly opposed to the lyricism that prevails in the last act.

26By the time the Boito-Verdi version appeared, the Willow Song naturally found its place in the opera as the lull before the storm that was present in most German romantic operas, as the composer Ferruccio Busoni noted in his review:

Au dernier acte, [Desdemona] se voit attribuer la « chanson du saule » qui comme dans l’opéra romantique allemand, illustre le « frisson de pressentiment » de la catastrophe.47

This is achieved thanks to Boito’s choice of returning to the First Folio version. The song is no longer the central object of the scene, no longer the aria the audience expects, the yardstick by which a singer’s dramatic talent could be judged. It has been restored to its function as a vehicle of pathos, interrupted first by Desdemona’s instructions to Emilia, then by the wind, which cuts the conclusion short. The popular origin of the cantilena, as Desdemona calls it, is reflected in the open fifths of the orchestral accompaniment, while the use of “word painting” patterns is apparent in ascending musical line that describes Barbara’s heavenward complaint, or in the descending line that highlights the words “Scendean gli augelli a vol dai rami cupi.”48 The word salce (willow) becomes an haunting lament inserted between the expressive melodic lines of the verses, while the chorus is built around the keyword : “cantiamo”, “let us sing.” But a major shift has occurred in terms of dramatic language: Verdi’s master technique is the combined result of two choices. On the one hand, it is based on a physics of powerful contrasts around which it revolves, quite different from the character-poised dramaturgy of all older versions. On the other hand, it precludes obscenity, so that Desdemona cannot conclude with an understated bawdy Freudian slip, but has to burst into a decisively poignant farewell cry to her lady in waiting, a phrase opera-lovers familiar with the work eagerly anticipate, and which invariably causes a rush of adrenalin unlike anything the Early Modern viewer could experience. Verdi’s Desdemona no longer needs a harp to embody her grief and justify her reference to the willow. The tree being a unambiguously a weeping willow, a tree of death (“il salce funebre”) needs no metaphorical object to convey its meaning, and the combination of mature voice and full orchestra signal, as it were, the coming of age of the character.

27The afterlives of Desdemona in her operatic guise clearly informed the way the Shakespearean character was performed in the 19th century, but directors of the play in the 20th century have been far less sensitive to a voice that now seems almost overbearing. In this respect, it is perhaps not surprising that in at least two major film versions of the play the character is played by a non-native speaker whose looks matter more than her accent (Suzanne Cloutier in Orson Welles’s 1952 film, Irène Jacob in Oliver Parker’s 1995 Hollywood production). The irrepressible emotions stirred by a dramatic soprano make it so much harder to believe that the protagonist could resist her entreaties that only the heightened context of the operatic stage makes such a powerful character possible as a victim.

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DUCIS, Jean-François. Œuvres, T. 3, Paris, L. de Bure, 1824.

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ELLACOMBE, Henry Nicholson. The plant-lore & garden-craft of Shakespeare, W. Satchell and Co., 1884.

FINEMAN Joel. « The Sound of O in Othello: The Real of the Tragedy of Desire » in Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Othello, ed. Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, New York, G. K. Hall & Co., 1994, p.104–23.

GARDNER-MEDWIN, Alisoun. « The 'Willow' Motif in Folksongs in Britain and Appalachia, » Studies in Scottish Literature 26 (1991): 235–45.

GOUWS, John. « Shakespeare, Webster, and the Moriturus Lyric in Renaissance England », Shakespeare in Southern Africa 3 (1989): 45–57.

GURR, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574–1642, 3d ed. Cambridge : Cambridge UP, 1992. 177–78.

KING, T.J. Casting Shakespeare's Plays: London Actors and Their Roles, 1590-1642, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

LAUNER, John. « Secrets of the willow », QJM (2005) 98 (2): 157-158.

LEDGER, Phillip (editor). The Oxford Book of English Madrigals, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1978.

LINDLEY, David. Shakespeare and Music, Arden/ Thomson Learning, 2006.

LOUDON, John Claudius. Arboretum et fruticetum britannicum:or, The trees and shrubs of Britain, London, 1838.

MADELAINE, Richard. « Apprenticeship and the Boy Actors Shakespearean Roles », Lloyd Davis, Shakespeare matters: history, teaching, performance, University of Delaware Press. 2003, pp. 225-238.

MALLARMÉ, Stéphane, Œuvres complètes. Édition présentée, établie et annotée par Bertrand Marchal. Gallimard, "Bibliothèque de la Pléiade", 2 tomes, 1998-2003.

MERCHANT, Christina, “Delacroix’s Tragedy of Desdemona.” Shakespeare Survey Volume 21: Othello. Ed. Kenneth Muir. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 30 December 2011.

MINCAR, Erin K. « "A verse to this note": Shakespeare's haunted songs », The Free Library, 01 January 2010. <"A verse to this note": Shakespeare's haunted songs.-a0252944363>.

MOSCHELES Felix, Fragments of an Autobiography, London, Ballantyne, 1899.

MUSSET, Alfred de, « Concert de Mademoiselle Garcia », Revue des Deux Mondes, volume 5, 1839.

MUSSET, Alfred de. « Théâtre italien : Débuts de Mademoiselle Pauline Garcia », Revue des Deux Mondes, volume 20, 1839.

ORGEL, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

PARKER, Patricia. « What’s in a Name: More, » Sederi XI: Revista de la Sociedad Española de Estudios Renacentistas Ingleses. Huelva: Universidad de Huelva Publicaciones, 2002. 101-49.

POTTER, Lois. Othello,Shakespeare in performance. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

RICCI, Bernardo. « Rossini, Dante e il gondoliere: una 'contaminatio' impropria? » Musica/Realta 34 (1991): 5-7.

ROGLIERI, Maria Ann. Dante and Music: Musical Adaptations of the "Commedia" from the Sixteenth Century to the Present. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.

ROULON, Natalie. Les femmes et la musique dans l'œuvre de Shakespeare. Paris:Honoré Champion, 2011.

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SHAKESPEARE, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice,Michael Neill ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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SHAPIRO, Michael. Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage, : Boy Heroines and Female Pages. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

SIEMON, James R. « Nay, that's not next": Othello, V. ii in Performance,. 1760-1900 », Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, 1986).

SMITH, Bruce. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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WALEN, Denise A. « Unpinning Desdemona », Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 58, Number 4, (Winter 2007): 487-508.

WILSON, Richard. «Veiling an Indian Beauty: Shakespeare and the hijab», Costume et déguisement dans le théâtre de Shakespeare et de ses contemporains. Ed. Pierre Kapitaniak et Jean-Michel Déprats, 2008. 177-202.

YACHNIN, Paul. « Magical Properties: Vision, Possession, and Wonder in Othello ». Theatre Journal 48, no. 2 (1996): 197-208.

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1  Orgel, 1996 ; Madelaine, 2003, pp. 225-238; Bloom, 2000, p.39-72.

2  Sternfeld, 1963, p.8 ; Lindley, 2006, p.149.

3  A point made both by Lindley (p.149) and Sternfeld (p.34).

4 A point made in particular by Stephen Orgel in the foreword to Duffin, 2004, p.13.

5 « Über einige neurotische Mechanismen bei Eifersucht, Paranoia und Homosexualität », first published in Internationale Zeitschrift Psychoanalyse, Bd VIII, 1922. Translated by Jacques Lacan for Revue française de psychanalyse, 1932, tome V, n° 3.pp 391-401. The article quotes that line in a footnote commenting on jealousy as a projection of one’s own temptation to be unfaithful on the Partner, who is judged to be as worthless as the jealous individual.

6  See a string of early articles on the subject, starting with Brennecke, 1953.  

7  “But truly the celebrated Desdemona, slain in our presence by her husband, although she pleaded her case very effectively throughout, yet moved [us] more after she was dead, when, lying on her bed, she entreated the pity of the spectators by her very countenance.”Corpus Christi Library, Fulman Papers, fol. 83v - 84r. First published by Geoffrey Tillotson in the Times Literary Supplement, 30 July 1933, p. 494. Translation: Riverside Shakespeare p.1978

8  See Potter, 2002 ; Neill, 2006, p.100.

9  eg in, in Yachnin, 1996, p.197-208, in Shapiro, 1998, p. 185. The debate is summed up and discussed by Barker, 2009, p.460–481.

10   Walen, 2007, pp. 487-508.

11   See Stern, 2004, 30–32. See also Gurr, 1992, p.177–78.

12  That this process was long and complicated is known if only through the many jokes on the subject that the literature of the period has left. To quote but one example, in Middleton’s A Mad World, my Masters, one characters about to dress up as a woman claims that “thou shalt see a woman quickly made up here”, to which his partner answers “But that’s against kind, Captain, for they are always long a making ready.” (3.3.72-3) 

13   According to the reading in the 1630 Quarto.

14  A musical example of this trope is provided in the famous madrigal by Orlando Gibbon, The Silver Swan : “The silver swan, who living had no note, / When death approached unlocked her silent throat”. First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 parts (1612), see Ledger, 1978, p.310.  

15  “underneath the grove of sycamore / That westward rooteth from the city's side, / So early walking did I see your son.“ Romeo and Juliet, I-i-142-4.

16  See the lengthy discussion proposed in Parker, 2002, 101-49, esp. 131-5, and the developments made by Wilson, 2008, p. 177-202.

17The Three Ravens was first printed by Thomas Ravenscroft in the song book Melismata. Mvsicall Phansies. Fitting the Covrt, Citie, and Covntrey Hvmovrs. To 3, 4, and 5. Voyces. (1611). See Duffin, p.119-121.

18  By reference to John Dowland’s celebrated lute solo, that he reworked into the song “Flow my Tears” and to which he provided many consort variations, but that was also set and reset by most Renaissance composers, including William Byrd. According to Davitt Moroney, many continental pieces also use the famous “opening motto theme” with its descending melody that parallels the one in the Willow Song. (see notes to the CD The Complete Keyboard Music of William Byrd, Hyperion, 1999,

19  The King James version of Psalm 137 reads: “1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.” For the introduction of willows and the usual association of the with sadness and forsaken love, see Loudon,1838, p. 1513 or Ellacombe,1884, part 1, p.321-3.

20Desdemona ... the poor soul sat singing, sing willow, willow, willow, Othello, act IV, scene 3 [graphic] / H. Singleton pinx. ; C. Taylor direxit et sculpt., Folger Shakespeare Library ART File S528o1 no.45 copy 1.

21  to quote Stéphane Mallarmé’s celebrated line “musicienne du silence” in “Sainte”, Mallarmé, 1998-2003, p.53.

22The song of poor Barbara, Othello, act 4, scene 3, The poor soul sat sighing ... [graphic] / R. Redgrave ARA, Folger Shakespeare Library ART File S528o1 no.44

23  Oil on canvas, approximately 18 x 21.5 inches. Leighton House, London, a sketch in oils for Leighton's contribution to Shakespeare's Heroines, an exhibition mounted by the Graphic in 1888.

24  Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, British, 1828 – 1882, Desdemona's Death-Song, 1875/1880, black chalk over traces of red chalk on two joined sheets of blue-green paper. National Gallery of Art, Washington, New Century Fund and Paul Mellon Fund. This is one of many versions of the picture, on which Rossetti began work as early as 1872, as the Rossetti Archive demonstrates (

25  Henri Decaisne (1799-1852), Maria Malibran-Garcia (1808-1836), dans le rôle de Desdémone, à l’acte III de l’Otello de Rossini, 1830 - Huile sur toile – Musée Carnavalet, Paris. See Authier.

26  There are two versions of Colbran as Desdemona, one a portrait by Pelagio Palagi belonging to the Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale in Bologna, the other by Johann Heinrich Schmidt in Milan, Museo Teatrale della Scala.

27  See Merchant, 1969, and Verdier, 1964, pp. 37-45.

28  Vigny, 1858. The translation was actually written in 1821.

29  Potter, 2002, p.61.

30  « peut-être cette romance sera[-t-elle] agréable à quelques personnes, et surtout aux femmes tendres et mélancoliques, qui trouveront du plaisir à la chanter dans la solitude. » Ducis, 1824, p.259.

31  All quotations from the opera are taken from Gioachino Rossini, Otello, Atto Terzo, http://opera.

32  As for instance in an illustration of Boccace, De mulieribus claris, France, Cognac, XVe-XVIe siècles, BNF Richelieu Manuscrits Français 599, fol. 42.

33  Desdemona, en parcourant sa chambre à pas précipités, se trouve auprès de sa harpe, qui, dans les grands théâtres d'Italie, reste immobile au côté gauche de la scène. Le lit fatal est au milieu. Desdemona cède à la tentation de s'arrêter près de sa harpe; elle chante la romance de l'esclave africaine sa nourrice […] Il était difficile de mieux amener ce chant, il faut le dire à la gloire de l'auteur du libretto. Stendhal, 1824,p.301.  

34  See Bury, 2005.

35  “Golden harp of the prophetic seers,/ why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?”

36  Alfred de Musset, 1839, p.206.

37  The opera is entirely set in Venice and follows the Italian literary tradition of Metastasio, with its highly conventional language, which had already become obsolete by 1816. But Rossini told Ignaz Moscheles in 1860 that he had imposed the Dantean lines on his librettist: “He told me he had given much time to the study of Italian literature in his day. Dante was the man he owed most to; he had taught him more music than all his music-masters put together; and when he wrote his "Otello" he insisted on introducing the song of the Gondolier. His librettist would have it that gondoliers never sang Dante, but he would not give in.  "I know that better than you," he said, "for I have lived in Venice, and you haven't. Dante I must and will have."” Moscheles, 1899, p.120.

38Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto V, l. 121. Stendhal translates the lines as « Il n'est pas de plus grande douleur que de se souvenir des temps heureux au sein de la misère. » and Musset as “'il n'est pire misère/Qu'un souvenir heureux dans les jours de douleur ?” in his poem  Souvenir, published in 1841 in Revue des Deux Mondes, 4ème série, tome 25, 1841,p.568

39  Mincar, 2010. Mincar quotes Roglieri, 2001, p.83. For a similar response, see Ricci, 1991, p.5-7.

40  In addition to the George Eliot reference mentioned above, Liszt cited and developed the theme into a full section of his Années de Pèlerinage, Venezia e Napoli: Canzone - a sign of how ubiquitous and beloved it was.

41  « Quant à la partie de Desdemona, madame Pasta la chante et surtout la joue vingt fois mieux que mademoiselle Colbrand », he writes in Vie de Rossini, p.289.

42  « Jamais ni la Malibran ni la Pasta n’avaient fait entendre des chants si parfaits de sentiments et d’intonation ».

43  Many of the different prints based on this painting are collected on the Gallica website:

44  op.cit. (note 24).

45  « Concert de Mademoiselle Garcia », p.101.

46  This is discussed at length for instance in Tadié, 2006.

47  Etude critique publiée dans la Neue Zeitschrift für Musik du 23 mars 1887.

48  The birds came flying down from the dark branches / Toward that sweet song.

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Référence électronique

Chantal Schütz, « Desdemona’s changing voices: from the “Willow Song” to the “Canzona del Salice” », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 16 | 2013, mis en ligne le 16 juin 2013, consulté le 13 mars 2018. URL :

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Chantal Schütz

Maître de Conférences à l’École Polytechnique depuis 2001, ancienne élève de l’ENS, agrégée d’anglais, Chantal Schütz a consacré sa thèse, dirigée par François Laroque, à A Mad World, my Masters de Thomas Middleton, et son édition bilingue de la pièce paraîtra prochainement aux éditions Garnier. Membre de l’équipe PRISMES (Université Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle), webmestre du site « Textes Théoriques sur la Traduction », trésorière de la Société Française Shakespeare, elle est également soprano soliste de l’ensemble des Sorbonne Scholars. Ses travaux récents portent sur Othello et l’opéra (colloques Mémoire textuelle, visuelle et auditive,Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle, 6/12 et Les métamorphoses de la voix sur la scène anglophone, INHA & Paris-IV Sorbonne, 6/11), A Mad World, my Masters (colloque Transmission and Transgression in Early Modern England, Université de Provence, 12/12). Elle a également présenté avec Anton Schütz une communication sur « Substitution for Substitution in Measure for Measure » au colloque Actualité de Mesure pour Mesure, Paris-Sorbonne, VALE et Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle, PRISMES, 10/12 (à paraître sur Sillages Critiques).Chantal Schütz has been a lecturer at the École Polytechnique since 2001. She studied at École Normale Supérieure (Paris) and wrote her Ph.D. under the supervision of François Laroque, on Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, my Masters, which she translated into French. Publication of her bilingual edition of the play is expected in 2013. Chantal is an active member of PRISMES, a research team of the Université Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle. She is the webmaster of an institutional website devoted to Theoretical Texts on Translation (TTT,, she is the financial officer of the French Shakespeare Society, and she is the principal soprano soloist of the Sorbonne Scholars ( Her recent work includes papers onA Mad World, my Masters (Conference on Transmission and Transgression in Early Modern England, University of Provence, 12/12) and “Substitution for Substitution in Measure for Measure” , co-authored with Anton Schütz (Conference on Actualité de Mesure pour Mesure, Paris-Sorbonne, VALE et Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle, PRISMES, 10/12).
Ecole Polytechnique / PRISMES EA 4398- Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3

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Please see the bottom of this page for full explanatory notes.

ACT IV SCENE III Another room in the castle. 
LODOVICO I do beseech you, sir, trouble yourself no further. 
OTHELLO O, pardon me: 'twill do me good to walk. 
LODOVICO Madam, good night; I humbly thank your ladyship. 
DESDEMONA Your honour is most welcome. 5
OTHELLO Will you walk, sir? 
 O, --Desdemona,--  
OTHELLO Get you to bed on the instant; I will be returned 
 forthwith: dismiss your attendant there: look it be done. 10
DESDEMONA I will, my lord. 
 Exeunt OTHELLO, LODOVICO, and Attendants. 
EMILIA How goes it now? he looks gentler than he did. 
DESDEMONA He says he will return incontinent: 
 He hath commanded me to go to bed, 
 And bade me to dismiss you. 15
EMILIA Dismiss me! 
DESDEMONA It was his bidding: therefore, good Emilia,. 
 Give me my nightly wearing, and adieu: 
 We must not now displease him. 
EMILIA I would you had never seen him! 20
DESDEMONA So would not I my love doth so approve him, 
 That even his stubbornness, his cheques, his frowns-- 
 Prithee, unpin me,--have grace and favour in them. 
EMILIA I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed. 
DESDEMONA All's one. Good faith, how foolish are our minds! 25
 If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me 
 In one of those same sheets. 
EMILIA Come, come you talk. 
DESDEMONA My mother had a maid call'd Barbara: 
 She was in love, and he she loved proved mad 30
 And did forsake her: she had a song of 'willow;' 
 An old thing 'twas, but it express'd her fortune, 
 And she died singing it: that song to-night 
 Will not go from my mind; I have much to do, 
 But to go hang my head all at one side, 35
 And sing it like poor Barbara. Prithee, dispatch. 
EMILIA Shall I go fetch your night-gown? 
DESDEMONA No, unpin me here. 
 This Lodovico is a proper man. 
EMILIA A very handsome man. 40
DESDEMONA He speaks well. 
EMILIA I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot 
 to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip. 
DESDEMONA [Singing.] The poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree. 
 Sing all a green willow: 
 Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee, 45
 Sing willow, willow, willow: 
 The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans; 
 Sing willow, willow, willow; 
 Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones; 
 Lay by these:-- 50
 Sing willow, willow, willow; 
 Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon: --  
 Sing all a green willow must be my garland. 
Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve, --
 Nay, that's not next.-- Hark! who is't that knocks? 55
EMILIA It's the wind. 
DESDEMONA [Singing.] I called my love false love; 
 but what said he then? 
 Sing willow, willow, willow: 
 If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men! 
 So, get thee gone; good night Ate eyes do itch; 60
 Doth that bode weeping? 
EMILIA 'Tis neither here nor there. 
DESDEMONA I have heard it said so. O, these men, these men! 
 Dost thou in conscience think, -- tell me, Emilia, --  
 That there be women do abuse their husbands 65
 In such gross kind? 
EMILIA There be some such, no question. 
DESDEMONA Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world? 
EMILIA Why, would not you? 
DESDEMONA No, by this heavenly light! 70
EMILIA Nor I neither by this heavenly light; 
 I might do't as well i' the dark. 
DESDEMONA Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world? 
EMILIA The world's a huge thing: it is a great price. 
 For a small vice. 75
DESDEMONA In troth, I think thou wouldst not. 
EMILIA In troth, I think I should; and undo't when I had 
 done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a 
 joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for 
 gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty 80
 exhibition; but for the whole world,--why, who would 
 not make her husband a cuckold to make him a 
 monarch? I should venture purgatory for't. 
DESDEMONA Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong 
 For the whole world. 85
EMILIA Why the wrong is but a wrong i' the world: and 
 having the world for your labour, tis a wrong in your 
 own world, and you might quickly make it right. 
DESDEMONA I do not think there is any such woman. 
EMILIA Yes, a dozen; and as many to the vantage as would 90
 store the world they played for. 
 But 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, 
 Or else break out in peevish jealousies, 95
 Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us, 
 Or scant our former having in despite; 
 Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace, 
 Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know 
 Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell 100
 And have their palates both for sweet and sour, 
 As husbands have. What is it that they do 
 When they change us for others? Is it sport? 
 I think it is: and doth affection breed it? 
 I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs? 105
 It is so too: and have not we affections, 
 Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have? 
 Then let them use us well: else let them know, 
 The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. 
DESDEMONA Good night, good night: heaven me such uses send, 110
 Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend! 

Othello, Act 5, Scene 1


Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 3

From Othello. Ed. Brainerd Kellogg. New York: Clark & Maynard.

Abbreviations. — A.-S. = Anglo-Saxon: M.E. = Middle English (from the 13th to the 15th century) ; Fr. = French ; Ger. = German ; Gr. = Greek ; Cf. = compare (Lat. confer) ; Abbott refers to the excellent Shakespearean Grammar of Dr. Abbott; Schmidt, to Dr. Schmidt's invaluable Shakespeare Lexicon.


13. Incontinent, immediately.

35. But, preventive. At one side. We still say a-side (at side), but on one side.

25. All's one, it is of no consequence.

43. sq. A song much like this is found in Percy's Reliques.

55. She has forgotten the words.

62. Emilia avoids giving a direct affirmative.

86, sq. It is only wrong if it becomes known to the world; now, if one is to gain the world for it, the world is at your command, and therefore it is no matter.

97. Having, property. Cf. "The gentleman is of no having." — Merry Wives., iii. 2, 73.

98. We are vexed.

111. Mend, amend.

How to cite the explanatory notes:

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Brainerd Kellogg. New York: Clark & Maynard, 1892. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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