Of all the laments and dirges throughout Shakespeare's plays, which is his saddest song?
It has to be "The Willow Song", in Act 4, Scene 3 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.
Here are the original lyrics:
“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
(Sing all a green willow, willow willow willow,)
With his hand in his bosom and his head upon his knee.
(Oh willow, willow, willow
Shall be my garland.)
He sighed in his singing and made a great moan...
I am dead to all pleasure, my true love she is gone...
The mute bird sat by him was made tame by his moans...
The true tears fell from him, would have melted the stones...
Come all you forsaken and mourn you with me...
Who speaks of a false love, mine’s falser than she...
Let love no more boast her in palace nor bower...
It buds, but it blasteth ere it be a flower...
Though fair and more false, I die with thy wound...
Thou hast lost the truest lover that goes upon the ground, sing...
Let nobody chide her, her scorns I approve...
She was born to be false, and I to die for her love...
Take this for my farewell and latest adieu...
Write this on my tomb, that in love I was true..."
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
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: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind"
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.”
As well as forewarning the audience of the tragedy to come, The Willow Song gives both Desdemona and Emilia a way to openly express their sorrow. It highlights the innocence of the two women, and the cruel acts of their husbands.