Shakespeare, Rossini and Verdi tell three different versions of Othello. The story is the same, but the different treatments give it different flavors. It is a tragedy, but the nature of the tragedy changes. Shakespeare and Verdi present a saint or a goddess who is destroyed by jealousy, but Rossini presents a human victim of her husband\'s rage.
In Shakespeare\'s play, Desdemona orders her wedding sheets to be placed upon her bed. Shakespeare emphasizes this gesture as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, though ironically Desdemona will soon lie murdered on them. She asks to be buried in those sheets. In Verdi\'s opera, she asks to be buried in her wedding gown. In Rossini\'s opera, this line is omitted. Thus, she seems saint-like in Shakespeare and Verdi, but she seems more human and less holy in Rossini.
In Shakespeare\'s play, she sings the "willow" song, unaware of any more immediate menace than the wind knocking upon the door. In Rossini\'s opera, she thinks the wind is a bad omen, which brings down the elevated meaning of the "willow" song to a mere earthly level. In Verdi\'s opera, she thinks that the sound of the wind is someone knocking at the door. Thus, Verdi follows Shakespeare in that Desdemona does not understand that the wind is foretelling a future tragedy.
Desdemona thinks of the meaning of adultery. She would not do such a wrong "for the whole world." Shakespeare contrasts Desdemona\'s high standards with those of the practical and down-to-earth Emilia: "Why, the wrong is but a wrong i\' the world; and having the world for your labor, \'tis a wrong in your own world and you might quickly make it right." When Desdemona sings the "willow" song, Emilia she does her best to comfort and console her. She also protests against the "double" sexual standard of men. Women also have "affections, / Desires for sport, and frailty." If men do wrong, then it is their fault that women also do wrong.
Shakespeare\'s Desdemona is a sweet, naive victim. Othello does not have money, beauty or good manners, but to Desdemona, he is perfect. She loves him for what he is. She respects him, as well. Desdemona is a loyal spouse who will do absolutely anything for her husband. Emilia tries to teach the innocent Desdemona about the evils of life. Carefully watching over her, Emilia constantly tries to warn her that jealousy is a "monster." She is not at all afraid of men and does not think twice about defending Desdemona\'s honor to the raging Othello.
In Shakespeare\'s play, the "willow" song is a supplement to the words and actions which move the action along. In the two operas, on the other hand, the music itself serves to advance the plot. The "willow" song has different words in each of the three versions. The way the women sing the song is different, as well. In Shakespeare\'s play, she is just singing an old folk song, and she is not a great singer. In Verdi\'s opera, on the other hand, Desdemona displays the highest qualities of the musical voice, which elevates the character of Desdemona and provokes a shiver in the audience. The beautiful song serves to portray the pure and innocent character of Desdemona, which is accented by the shining white of costumes and lights. It is like musical poetry. Verdi\'s Desdemona is a pure, white lady in white clothing, almost a goddess. Rossini\'s Desdemona is pretty, but her voice ranges from loud to whispering, instead of from forte to pianissimo. She is fully human, unlike the goddess of Verdi\'s opera. Her lighting is blue, not white. She is sad, not pure. Thus, Shakespeare presents a saint killed by the monster of jealousy, and Verdi presents a goddess murdered by the monster of jealousy, while Rossini presents a woman killed by her husband.


The Riverside Shakespeare.