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What is the significance of the Willow Song in Othello?

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The Willow Song tells the audience what is going to come further in the tragedy. This ballad is about a woman who is loyal to her lover despite his cruelty. Desdemona sings this song a few moments before Othello murders her. Therefore, by introducing this song to the audience, Shakespeare depicts Desdemona’s tragic destiny.

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Shakespeare’s works are famous for their symbolism and essential details. These literary devices help readers understand a character or a scene better.

The tragedy Othello is not an exception. The play is an example of the profound and effective use of emphatic devices, including foreshadowing. Its significant role is to warn the readers about what may happen further with the help of symbols and signs. Desdemona’s Willow Song is one of the most crucial foreshadowing symbols. The song has a fascinating background. As Desdemona tells:

“My mother had a maid call’d Barbara:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
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”.
(Act 4, scene 3)

The Willow Song helps the author to prepare the audience for a crucial and tragic scene.

Before the song appears in the tragedy, Othello’s doubts about Desdemona become obvious. Due to Iago’s plan to ignite Othello’s jealousy, the Moor wrongly assumes that Desdemona betrayed him. With the help of the Willow Song, Shakespeare and foretells Desdemona’s subsequent murder. The song appears in Act IV, scene 3, as Desdemona prepares for bed, burdened by the concerns about Othello.

The lyrics of the song reflect Desdemona’s inner doubts and worries:

“I call’d 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;
Doth that bode weeping?”
(Act 4, scene 3)

The Willow Song is initially a folk ballad about a man who was betrayed by his lover. By changing the victim from male to female, Shakespeare makes it more relevant to Desdemona’s love for Othello. Like the song’s character, Desdemona laments about her husband’s cruelty and his doubts about her fidelity. However, she remains loving and loyal to Othello.

Besides predicting Desdemona’s murder, the song contributes to revealing her pure, sincere nature. The symbolic meaning of the willow tree is essential for the image of the character. Being a symbol of a woman left by her lover, willow is the reflection of Desdemona. As a physical embodiment of grief, it helps readers understand the innocence of Othello’s wife. Also, since willow is a tree growing near water, it is related to tears and loss.

The motive of a woman’s love and a man’s cruelty is common to other literary works by Shakespeare. For example, in Hamlet, Ophelia drowns by falling from a willow tree after Hamlet leaves her. This scene proves that the willow symbolizes the inner suffering and unhappy love of a woman.

Moreover, readers can notice the same motive of a woman’s purity later in Othello. In the scene when Emilia is killed by her husband, the audience hears the song again. Emilia betrays her husband Iago by convincing Othello of Desdemona’s fidelity. As a result, she dies singing the Willow Song herself.

Therefore, the analysis of the Willow Song is vital for the understanding of the entire play. The song proves that the symbols hidden in the text prepare readers for a tragic outcome of the story. As a sign of grief and unhappy love, willow reflects the innocence of Desdemona. Therefore, besides foretelling the tragedy, the song helps the reader to understand Desdemona’s nature better.

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