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Music


In Cyprus, observing the joyous reunion of Othello and Desdemona, Iago says to himself that he will wreck the lovers' harmony: "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am" (2.1.199-201). The "pegs" to which he refers are the tuning pegs on a stringed instrument. Their love is the instrument on which Iago is planning to loosen ("set down") the pegs until the harmony is turned into discord. [Scene Summary]


Counting on the fact that no one likes to be a party-pooper, Iago sings drinking songs in order to encourage Cassio to get drunk. Drinking songs tend to be rollicking, jolly justifications of drinking. Iago's first song delivers the message that life is short, so you might as well drink and enjoy it:

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink
  A soldier's a man;
  A life's but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.  (2.3.69-73)
Iago's second drinking song is a little more subtle. It's an old ballad which starts by making fun of a king who got angry because his cheap breeches cost sixpence too much. The song then goes on to say that the king was a man of high degree, but "you" (the drinker) are of low degree. But being of high degree isn't necessarily a good thing, because it's pride that ruins a country. The conclusion is that you should warm yourself in your old cloak, and drink. After all, no one's too good to take a drink. Here's the song:
King Stephen was a worthy peer,
  His breeches cost him but a crown;
He held them sixpence all too dear,
  With that he call'd the tailor lown.
He was a wight of high renown,
  And thou art but of low degree:
'Tis pride that pulls the country down;
  Then take thine auld cloak about thee.  (2.3.89-96)
Iago's singing has the desired effect. Cassio, drunk, exclaims, "'Fore God, this is a more exquisite song than the other" (2.3.98-99) [Scene Summary]


Coming to Othello's residence to speak with Desdemona, the disgraced Cassio brings some musicians with him. He instructs them to play something brief, then bid Othello good morning. Apparently Cassio's idea is to soften up Othello for the time when Desdemona will ask him to reinstate Cassio in his lieutenancy. However, as soon the musicians begin to play, Othello's servant comes out to chase them away. The first thing the servant says is "Why masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i' the nose thus?" (3.1.3-4). Naples was supposed to be the home of syphilis, and the servant is scornfully asking if the musicians' instruments sound so horribly nasal because they have syphilis. After that, the servant makes a fart joke, and tells the musicians that Othello doesn't want to hear any music. Then the servant drives the musicians away. [Scene Summary]


After Iago has planted the seed of jealousy in his mind, Othello tries to convince himself that he's not the jealous type. He says, "'Tis not to make me jealous / To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, / Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; / Where virtue is, these are more virtuous"(3.3.183-186). What Desdemona "plays" is probably a musical instrument. Being able to make music was a "virtue" -- an admirable social grace.

Later in the same scene, when Othello's jealousy is full-blown, he had a speech so famous that it's often referred to simply as "Othello's farewell to his occupation." He says that even if Desdemona went to bed with the dirtiest, sweatiest soldiers in camp (the "pioners"), he would have been happy so long as he hadn't known, but now he can't be a soldier anymore:

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines
[deadly cannon], whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dread clamours
[fearful thunder] counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!   (3.3.345-357)
The music of war, including the thunder of the cannon, makes Othello feel alive, fully himself, but without Desdemona's love he feels that he's nothing. [Scene Summary]


Shortly after Othello has berated Desdemona about the handkerchief, Cassio appears to once again ask Desdemona to intervene on his behalf. She tells him that "My advocation is not now in tune; / My lord is not my lord; nor should I know him, / Were he in favour [appearance] as in humour [attitude] alter'd" (3.4.123-125). In other words, now is not a good time to talk to Othello; he's not himself, and if his appearance had changed as much as his attitude, she wouldn't recognize him. The phrase "in tune" is so common (in Shakespeare's time as well as ours) that it may be a stretch to call it a musical image. [Scene Summary]


At a moment when Iago is trying to build Othello's jealousy into a murderous rage, Othello begins to think of what a beautiful, sweet woman Desdemona is. Iago tells him that he needs to put such thoughts out of his mind, and Othello says, "Hang her! I do but say what she is. So delicate with her needle. An admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear" (4.1.187-189). However, it's not Desdemona's music, but Iago's words that win the battle for Othello's soul. Othello's mood becomes ever more savage, and he plans the time, place, and manner of Desdemona's murder. [Scene Summary]


Preparing for bed to await Othello, Desdemona falls into a reverie and says to Emilia:

My mother had a maid call'd 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 express'd her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song to-night
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.   (4.3.26-33)
There is a very strong parallel between Barbary and Desdemona. Like Barbary, Desdemona is in love, and her beloved, though not "mad," is insanely jealous and has emotionally forsaken Desdemona. Presumably, Barbary died of a broken heart while singing the "willow" song; Desdemona will die at the hands of her love soon after she sings the same song.

For us, Desdemona's thoughts create a sense of foreboding, but Desdemona has no idea that she is about to die. She's depressed by the sense that she is losing Othello's love, and so the song comes into her head. The sense of lost love is evoked both by the song of "willow" and the willow tree itself. The tree, sometimes called the "weeping willow," was thought to be reminiscent of a rain of tears, or of the long hair of a person hanging her head in mourning.

The "willow" song pictures a woman in a state of deep melancholy, her hand on her breast, her head on her knee, moaning and weeping as she sits beside a stream. Desdemona sings the first verse, asks Emilia to hurry, and then begins the second verse of the song, with "Sing all a green willow must be my garland" (4.3.51), but then she adds a line of her own: "Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve" (4.3.52). Now she's singing of her feelings about Othello, not of the sad woman in song. She realizes that she's made a mistake, thinks she hears a knock at the door, then continues the actual song: "I call'd my love false love; but what said he then? / Sing willow, willow, willow: / If I court moe [more] women, you'll couch with [have sex with] moe men." (4.3.55-57).

The bitter second verse of the song seems to be a comment on Desdemona's situation. The weeping woman in the song accused her lover being unfaithful, but he turned the accusation back on her and made his unfaithfulness her fault. It's the end of the road for the weeping woman, as Othello's jealous fantasies about Desdemona mark the end of the road for her. Desdemona's determination to keep on loving Othello isn't going to save her life, but neither is anything else. [Scene Summary]


Because she defends Desdemona's honor and tells the truth, Emilia is fatally stabbed by Iago. Lying besides Desdemona, Emilia bids farewell to her mistress:

             What did thy song bode, lady?
Hark, canst thou hear me? I will play the swan.
And die in music.

[Singing.]

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, alas, I die.   (5.2.246-251)
The swan was said to sing as it died. Dying, Emilia sings and speaks of Desdemona's love and truth. [Scene Summary]

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