Summary and Analysis
After the supper, Othello orders Desdemona to go to bed and to dismiss her attendant. Desdemona and Emilia discuss the situation; Emilia sees the marriage with Othello as a mistake, but Desdemona regrets nothing. She has a premonition of death and requests Emilia, if she should die, to wrap her body in one of her wedding sheets, which are now on the bed. Desdemona sings the "Willow Song," remembering the maid Barbary whose lover went mad and abandoned her, and she died singing this song.
Emilia knows something is seriously wrong, but Desdemona's mind is preoccupied with the problem of her husband's love. She loves him so much that she cannot tell whether his love is lost or is yet recoverable. She has a vague premonition of death and requests of Emilia, "If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me / In one of those same sheets" (24-25). Desdemona has reacted to this crisis with the passivity of despair and grief, as was the tradition for women abandoned. Othello, on the other hand, thinking he has lost Desdemona's love and fidelity, reacts with aggressive passions of accusations and violence.
Desdemona tells the story of her mother's maid, Barbary, and her sad fate. "She was in love, and he she lov'd prov'd 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" (27-30). Barbary is a parallel for Desdemona herself: her mother's maid is something like her mother's daughter, a girl under her mother's care and protection. This is the only time Desdemona mentions her mother, and she speaks of her in the distant past, as if she were dead. Desdemona's mother plays no part in the story of the courtship and marriage to Othello, and Desdemona speaks and acts as a woman alone, who takes full responsibility for her decisions.
Desdemona and Barbary are not only alone in their sorrow but are both associated with strangers. "Barbary," the name, means "foreigner." Desdemona married a foreigner, whom some called a barbarian, that is an uncivilized foreigner. Iago described the marriage as that between "an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian"(I.3, 355-356), an opinion many Venetians would have held and that Desdemona would have been well aware of.
Desdemona sings the "Willow Song," and, in this indirect way, she faces the real possibility that Othello is going mad and will desert her and that she may die of a broken heart. The "Willow Song" is an old one, existing in many versions before Shakespeare incorporated it into his play. Of special interest is line 52 that echoes, as it were, Desdemona's thoughts in lines 19-20. In the song, it is the male lover who is false and the cause of the poor woman's sighing and weeping. Obviously the mood perfectly reflects that of Desdemona, whose love is so strong that she approves Othello's frowns, just as the "poor soul" (41) in the song approves her lover's "scorn" (52). Willow, also known as weeping willow, is associated in Shakespeare's plays with lost love. In Hamlet, staged three years before Othello, Ophelia drowns surrounded by willows and flowers; Gertrude describes the scene: "There is a willow grows askant a brook" (Hamlet IV.7, 166). Ophelia's love, Prince Hamlet, appeared mad and rejected her, and she lost her mind and died singing as she drowned. Ophelia and Barbary have almost the same story.
All through this scene, while Emilia tries to comfort and cheer Desdemona, she knows that her husband Iago has the handkerchief, a fact that she could have revealed to Desdemona but does not. Possibly Emilia hopes nothing more will be heard of the matter, or she thinks to protect her husband from accusation if the handkerchief subsequently turns up somewhere. Emilia had stood silently in the background (as a lady's maid should) when Othello demanded to see the handkerchief and Desdemona could not produce it (Act III, Scene 4), so she is aware that the handkerchief itself forms part of Othello's accusation. To speak now would seem too late, but to hide the information is not honest either.
Emilia and Desdemona make a clear contrast in their approach to marriage and fidelity. Desdemona is a romantic who has married for love and values loyalty absolutely. Emilia has a practical intelligence and assesses each situation to decide which is the best course of action. She thinks that a wife's infidelity is a serious matter, only to be undertaken for good solid reasons of advantage: "who would not make her husband a cuckold, to make him a monarch?" (74-75) The other reason for a wife to be unfaithful is in reaction to the husband's misbehavior or maltreatment: "But I do think it is their husbands' faults / If wives do fall" (86-87).
Emilia's speech at the end of Act IV on the faults of husbands neatly balances Iago's speech in Act II on the faults of wives. Both speeches were heard by Desdemona, who dismisses them as not relating to her and her love.
stubbornness (20) roughness.
nightgown (34) a dressing-gown; robe.
store (84) to fill; populate.
peevish (88) silly.
galls (91) the ability to resent.