Themes, Motifs and Symbols contd.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Handkerchief

The handkerchief symbolizes different things to different characters. Since the handkerchief was the first gift Desdemona received from Othello, she keeps it about her constantly as a symbol of Othello’s love. Iago manipulates the handkerchief so that Othello comes to see it as a symbol of Desdemona herself—her faith and chastity. By taking possession of it, he is able to convert it into evidence of her infidelity. But the handkerchief’s importance to Iago and Desdemona derives from its importance to Othello himself. He tells Desdemona that it was woven by a 200-year-old sibyl, or female prophet, using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. Othello claims that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her, so, to him, the handkerchief represents marital fidelity. The pattern of strawberries (dyed with virgins’ blood) on a white background strongly suggests the bloodstains left on the sheets on a virgin’s wedding night, so the handkerchief implicitly suggests a guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity.

The Song “Willow”

As she prepares for bed in Act V, Desdemona sings a song about a woman who is betrayed by her lover. She was taught the song by her mother’s maid, Barbary, who suffered a misfortune similar to that of the woman in the song; she even died singing “Willow.” The song’s lyrics suggest that both men and women are unfaithful to one another. To Desdemona, the song seems to represent a melancholy and resigned acceptance of her alienation from Othello’s affections, and singing it leads her to question Emilia about the nature and practice of infidelity.

THE WILLOW SONG 1 (Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory)

Weeping Willow

As Desdemona is preparing for bed the night she will be murdered, she starts singing a song about willow trees. (We’d be nodding off to Antiques Roadshow and eating ice cream, but that’s just us.)

This song, supposedly sung originally by one of Desdemona’s mother’s servants who loved a crazy guy, reflects Desdemona’s own situation. She herself is worried that the man she married has gone crazy and will desert her. Willows at the edge of water are a traditional symbol of women deserted by their lovers: in another Shakespearean example, Ophelia, deserted by her love, Hamlet, dies after she falls out of a willow tree and drowns in a brook in the play Hamlet.

The Willow Song

The ‘Willow Song’ has a life of its own as one of the more familiar Elizabethan ballads, mainly through its dramatic quotation in Shakespeare’s play, Othello (Act IV, Scene iii). Also known as ‘Desdemona’s lament’, the song is found in an untitled version for voice and lute in British Library Add. Ms. 15117, f. 18 (circa 1600). An earlier setting for lute solo is also found in Folger Shakespeare Library manuscript 448.16, f. 19, and Christopher Goodwin and Ian Payne have pieced together fragments from other miscellaneous early sources, even creating choral and consort versions of the song, as described in Lute News 64 and 73.

While Shakespeare’s text is adapted to fit the female perspective, the manuscript source offers an alternative, employing nearly the full range of imagery that describes ‘Elizabethan melancholy’, or what might aptly be called the 16th-century Blues. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is a source that offers both a literary and a medical description of the symptoms of melancholy, as well as the role of music as a treatment for the affliction:

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is presumed to date from 1604, although it was not published until 1622, and Shakespeare’s source for the play was a novella by Giraldi Cinthio, published in his Hecatommithi (Venice, 1565). As with his earlier source for the story, Shakespeare likely quoted the ‘Willow song’ from the English ballad tradition of the late 16th century, with the phrase-oriented melody and lute accompaniment set to preexisting poetry, the result seeming more like a realized ground than an authentic through-composed song.

In Othello Act IV, Scene iii, Desdemona describes her source of the song to Emilia while dressing:

My mother had a maid call’d Barbary;
She was in love, and he she lov’d prov’d mad,
And did forsake her. She had a song of “Willow,”
And old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song tonight
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.

Desdemona’s rendition of the song naturally adapts the text to the female point of view, and her singing is interrupted a few times for dramatic purposes.

WATCH THE WILLOW SONG ON YOUTUBE…  The Willow Song (Othello) Lyrics -Giles Terera… The Willow Song… Anonymous – The Willow song (Othello, IV:3)


Shakespeare’s Saddest Song?

Of all the laments and dirges throughout Shakespeare’s plays, which is his saddest song?

It has to be “The Willow Song”, in Act Four Scene Three of Othello. Desdemona is preparing for bed, afraid that Othello is wrongly angry with her for being unfaithful. She sings The Willow Song, a mournful folk ballad, in which a lady laments her lost love. Desdemona only has time to sing two verses before she breaks off to talk to her maid Emilia. But Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with the ending of the original ballad, and they would have known that it foretold tragedy.

The earliest record of The Willow Song is in a book of lute music from 1583. There were eight verses, and it was originally about a man who dies because of his love’s cruelty and betrayal. Shakespeare changes the victim in the song from a man to a woman, making it more relevant to Desdemona.

Shakespeare’s audience would have understood that the inclusion of the song foretells imminent tragedy for Desdemona, due to the cruelty of her lover Othello.

In the play, Desdemona says she learnt the song from her mother’s maid, Barbara, who met with a tragic end whilst singing it:

“She was in love, and he she loved proved mad….etc as  above

Later in the play, Desdemona’s own maid Emilia makes Othello realise Desdemona’s innocence, and she is stabbed by her own husband, Iago, for betraying him. She refers to the song and its ominous prediction, and then sings it herself as she dies:

“What did thy song bode, lady?
Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan.
And die in music.
Willow, willow, willow —
Moor, she was chaste; she loved thee, cruel Moor;
So come my soul to bliss, as I speak true;
So speaking as I think, I die, I die.”
Othello, 4.3

As well as forewarning the audience of the tragedy to come, The Willow Song gives both Desdemona and Emilia a way out of their problem.




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