The Willow Scene

Act 4 Scene 3 – Key Scene

In this scene, Emilia helps Desdemona get ready for bed. Emilia is worried about Othello’s strange behaviour and thinks he is behaving jealously towards Desdemona. Desdemona cannot imagine why any woman would give her husband cause for jealousy. She cannot get a sad song ‘of willow’ out of her head that her mother’s maid sang after falling in love with a man who left her.

Take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and, if you’re looking at the scene for the first time, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    How goes it now? He looks gentler than he did.
    He says he will return incontinent,
    And hath commanded me to go to bed,
    And bid me to dismiss you.

    Straight away.

    Dismiss me?

    Why do you think Emilia questions that she should be dismissed?

    It was his bidding: therefore, good Emilia,
    Give me my nightly wearing, and adieu.
    We must not now displease him.
    I would you had never seen him.
    So would not I: my love doth so approve him
    That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns —
    Prithee, unpin me — have grace and favour in them.

    Because I love Othello, and have entrusted myself to his care, I see what’s good in him even when he is stubborn or rude or disapproving of me.

    I have laid those sheets you bade me, on the bed.
    All’s one.— Good faith, how foolish are our minds!
    If I do die before, prithee shroud me
    In one of those same sheets.

    Wrap me up ready to be buried.

    Come, come, you talk.
    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 ’twas, but it expressed 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. Prithee, dispatch.

    Barbary is a name that has a suggestion of North Africa, or Barbary coast.

    She used to sing a song about 'willow', a tree used to symbolise lost or unrequited love.

    Why do you think this song might be on Desdemona’s mind? How might remembering the song make her feel?

    Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
    No, unpin me here.
    (Text edited for rehearsals by Iqbal Khan)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud, then watch the actors trying it in different ways and discussing their ideas. Why do you think the actors and director have chosen to play the status of the characters in this way? Are there any words or lines that really stand out and help you think more about the characters’ relationship?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past portrayals of Desdemona and Emilia at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the Willow Scene feel right to you?