Admirable Musicians: Women's Songs in Othello and The Maid's Tragedy


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Desdemona, Othello tells us in IV.i, is "An admirable musician" who can "sing the savageness out of a bear. "1 Earlier in the play Othello seems to ponder the significance of her musical talent, as though it will provide the key to her character: faithful wife or "super-subtle Venetian" (I.iii.358-59). He protests that there is nothing inherently wrong with musical accomplishments such as singing, playing, and dancing: "Where virtue is, these are more virtuous" (III.iii.192); but his qualification reveals a deeply ambiguous response to female singing, a response explored more fully in the contemporary drama. In the following essay, I examine the way in which the convention of female singing operates as a characterizing device in some of the plays of the period. I argue that in Othello IV.iii, the scene in which Desdemona sings her willow complaint, Shakespeare draws on an association of female singing with female sexuality for his portrait of Desdemona. One of the willow song scenes most like Desdemona's is 11.i of Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy, where Aspatia also sings a willow complaint. I suggest that in The Maid's Tragedy, Beaumont and Fletcher are not simply imitating Shakespeare but consciously revising his willow song scene in Othello. Their revision tells us much about Shakespeare's version.

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