The Willow Song in Othello

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  • 0:01 Introduction to Othello
  • 0:40 The Willow Song
  • 2:27 How This Is Foreshadowing
  • 3:29 Desdemona and Emilia
  • 4:45 Significance of the Willow
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Bishop
Desdemona sings the Willow Song moments before her beloved Othello murders her. This haunting ballad foreshadows her death and provides an opportunity for a revealing discussion between Desdemona and Emilia, the play's two tragic heroines.

Introduction to Othello

Shakespeare often employed foreshadowing devices to build anticipation in the scenes preceding to the plot climax. In Othello, Iago's plot against the tragic hero targets Othello's greatest vulnerability, his wife Desdemona. Iago exploits Othello's self-doubt to create a catastrophic jealousy that eventually drives Othello to madness. In the final scene of Act IV, Desdemona sings the Willow Song as she prepares for bed. In this lesson, we will examine the meaning and significance of the Willow Song as a foreshadowing device and plot point.

The Willow Song Itself

By the time Desdemona sings the Willow Song in Act IV, scene 3, Iago's plan to drive Othello into a jealous rage has come to fruition. Iago spends much of the first three acts insinuating an affair between Desdemona and Cassio (Othello's lieutenant), creating Othello's doubt about Desdemona's fidelity. Iago plants Desdemona's handkerchief in Cassio's quarters hoping that it will be discovered. Iago does not count on Cassio's lover, Bianca, publicly scolding Cassio for possessing the handkerchief. Othello, having witnessed Bianca's outburst, is now convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him.

As Desdemona prepares for bed in Act IV, scene 3, she sings:

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 murmur'd her moans

Her salt tears fell from her, and soften'd the stones;

Lay by these

Sing willow, willow, willow

Prithee hie thee; he'll come anon.

Sing all green willow must be my garland.

Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve

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...

The subject of the song, a lovelorn woman, is sitting by a stream lamenting her lover who has been cruel to her, but she remains loyal to him. The song bears similarity to Desdemona's situation in that Othello has also been cruel, and Desdemona remains steadfast in her loyalty.

How This Is Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary device used to warn the audience or reader of what is to come. Shakespeare uses foreshadowing in his tragic plays as a way to prepare the audience for the atrocity of the tragic ending. By the time we have reached the final scene of Act IV, we know that Othello intends to kill Desdemona. When she sings the Willow Song and explains what the song means to her, we realize that Desdemona also has a premonition of her doom.

Before singing the Willow Song, Desdemona tells her attendant, Emilia, that her mother's maid, Barbary, died while singing it. Barbary was in love with a man who was insane and abandoned her. Desdemona explains that the 'song to-night will not go from my mind; I have much to do but to go hang my head all at one side and sing it like poor Barbary.' Although she does not explain exactly how Barbary died, Desdemona is haunted by the song.

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