My mother had a maid called Barbary,
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her. She had a song of “Willow,”
An old thing ʼtwas, but it expressed her fortune
And she died singing it. That song tonight
Will not go from my mind.(4.3.25–30)
Preparing for bed, Desdemona tells Emilia about a song she knows called “Willow.” Othello has just ordered Desdemona to bed, and to please and appease him, she has obeyed. She even has Emilia make up the bed with her wedding sheets. Desdemona seems to believe that Othello intends to come to the bedchamber to reconcile with her, but readers know his true intentions are to murder her there, in the bed that symbolizes the marital promise of fidelity he believes she broke. Her subconscious seems to understand her impending doom, however, for she can’t get “Willow”—a song symbolizing a forsaken woman’s sorrow and impending death—out of her mind. Just like Barbary, Desdemona will die soon after the song’s words fall from her lips.
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmured her moans,
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones
Sing willow, willow, willow—
Lay by these—
Prithee, hie thee, he’ll come anon—
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve—(4.3.40–49)
After Othello sends her to bed, Desdemona sings the song “Willow,” a song that tells of a sorrowful woman who loves her man so much that she accepts his hatred of her, and even asks others to forgive him for his hostile treatment of her. Despite Desdemona repeatedly insisting that Othello is too good a man to feel jealousy, her subconscious seems to know otherwise. While singing the mournful ballad, Desdemona is startled by a knocking at the door—an omen, for, in fact, her death will soon be coming through that door. The song’s lyrics mention the color green, linking the woman’s sorrow with jealousy, the “green-eyed monster” that has infected Othello’s mind.
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, get thee gone, good night. Mine eyes do itch,
Doth that bode weeping?(4.3.52–55)
While dressing for bed, Desdemona continues to sing more lines from “Willow,” a song of lost love and profound heartache. The situation in the song mirrors Desdemona’s situation: like the speaker of the song, she understands that her husband no longer loves her, and she is heartbroken. Both the man in the song and Othello cruelly turn on their wives, first accusing them of not being true and then sending them away. Even though Desdemona’s words and actions suggest optimism that Othello’s anger with her will fade, her singing “Willow” reveals that deep within, she knows Othello’s love for her is dead.
What did thy song bode, lady?
Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan,
And die in music.
(singing) Willow, willow, willow—
Moor, she was chaste, she loved thee, cruel Moor.(5.2.261–263)
Stabbed by Iago for revealing the truth regarding Desdemona’s handkerchief, Emilia uses her last breath to express both her love for Desdemona and her disgust for Othello and his unwarranted brutality. Once again, the song symbolizes a woman fatally betrayed by her husband. Even though Emilia now joins Barbary and Desdemona as a woman forsaken by her lover, she manages to do something the other women could not: She speaks her truth, recognizes her husband for what he is, and breaks free from the loyalty she once felt to him. Moments before her death, Emilia displays great courage by ignoring Iago’s repeated demands to remain silent, and in doing so, she ensures that everyone in the room knows the truth about Iago’s treacherous lies and Desdemona’s unfaltering loyalty.