The painting depticts Act IV, Scene III from Shakespeare's tragedy, Othello. The central figure in the picture is Desdemona, wife of the gallant Othello, and beside her is Emilia, wife of Othello's friend and fellow soldier, Iago. Earlier in the story, Othello had promoted the young Florentine, Cassio, to the rank of Lieutenant, which had offended Iago, who felt he had the stronger claim. Iago now plots his revenge by arousing suspicion in Othello's mind that Desdemona is being unfaithful to him.
By Act IV Othello has become so disturbed that he has ordered Desdemona to dismiss the loyal Emilia. Desdemona recalls a song her mother's maid Barbara had sung upon realising that the man she loved was mad and had frosaken her. Barbara died as she sang the song, known as the Romance of Soul.
Chassériau's picture shows Desdemona, her arm resting on a harp, having sung the words that now befit her own situation:
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree, Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee, Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur'd her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened her stones;-
Chassériau engraved a suite of fifteen prints for the 1844 edition of Othello, among them The Romance of the Soul. Desdemona is depicted in most of them, and she is also the subject of a number of Chassériau's independent paintings, including several variations on the present theme. These paintings reveal not only the influence of the artist's teacher, Ingres, particularly in the figure of Desdemona, but of Delacroix, whose use of colour to express emotion fascinated the younger painter. Like Delacroix, he had travelled to North Africa, and his subsequent work was deeply inspired by this experience, as the exotic setting and sumptuous palette of Desdemona makes evident.