Updated October 13, 2020

Simbol of Handkerchief in Othello by William Shakespeare

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Simbol of Handkerchief in Othello by William Shakespeare essay
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Have you ever encountered something seemingly insignificant only to find out its true value much later, after it is too late? The villain Iago in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice is very crafty about making insignificant things seem to be more than what they really are. He is able to use people, his cunning, his intellect, and even his false love of Othello to magnify trivialities in order to trick Othello into believing that his wife Desdemona is unfaithful.

Of all his devices, the handkerchief is the most magnificent trifle of all. It causes the tragic end of Othello and Desdemona, implicates Iago, and costs Emilia her life as well. Othello’s love for Desdemona is symbolized by the handkerchief; therefore, Iago easily turns it into the object that fuels Othello’s intense jealousy. The trivial little “napkin” almost seems to have magical powers as we learn of its mystical history. In terms of the play as a whole, the handkerchief’s significance is portrayed in its symbolism. It symbolizes love or jealousy, and at times a mysterious interwoven web of both; ultimately, the handkerchief becomes the catalyst for the tragedy.

At first the handkerchief is used to symbolize love; however, by the time the readers’ attention is first focused on it, Iago has already been implanting jealousy in Othello’s mind concerning Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. After contemplating Iago’s attempt at making him suspicious, Othello blames himself and says, “If she be false, O, Then heaven mocks itself!/I’ll not believe ‘t “(III, iii, 293-294). He is in a stupor when Desdemona finds him and tries to “bind [his] head with her handkerchief – that handkerchief which is to become a terrific symbol of Othello’s jealousy” (Knight 465).

This is “the very handkerchief that signifies the power of the gift that binds her to him in loving obligation” (Berger 381). He pushes it away and says it is too small, trifling; neither of them notices it as it falls to the floor. When Emilia finds the “napkin” she remembers that “This was [Desdemona’s] first remembrance from the Moor” (III, iii, 307), a love token that Desdemona cherishes.

Little does Desdemona know that the handkerchief will kill the fragile trust between her and Othello.Emilia finds the handkerchief and delivers it to Iago with hope of gaining Iago’s favor; however, Iago uses it instead to solidify his plans to destroy Othello through jealousy. Certainly, at this point in the play, the handkerchief is not trivial to Emilia or Iago. She believes that she is giving the handkerchief to Iago to please him since she says, “My wayward husband hath a hundred times/ Wooed me to steal it,…./I nothing but to please his fantasy” (III, iii, 308-309; 315). Upon receiving it, Iago declares: “Trifles light as air/Are to the jealous confirmations strong/As proofs of Holy Writ” (III, iii, 338-340). Yet this is no trifling matter to Iago.

Now that he has it, he plans to use the handkerchief as the “ocular proof” (III, iii, 376) of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness that Othello has demanded of him. By planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s room, he is hoping that Othello will become outrageously jealous at the thought of Desdemona giving the precious handkerchief away as a token of her supposed love for Cassio. Thus, the handkerchief, as a symbol of jealousy, works well within Iago’s plan to destroy Othello.

As Desdemona continues to work on Cassio’s behalf to encourage Othello to reinstate him to his former post, she discovers that she cannot find her handkerchief—a bothersome but seemingly trivial matter which will eventually lead to tragedy. As she worriedly searches for it, she says to Emilia:. . .my noble MoorIs true of mind and made of no such baseness As jealous creatures are, it [the missing handkerchief] were enough To put him to ill thinking. (III, iv, 20-23)The topic of jealousy is presented ironically here because Desdemona is convinced that Othello does not have a jealous nature. She says that “the sun where he was born/ Drew all such humors from him” (III, iv, 23-24). Othello’s reputation precedes him in that he is known for his great self-control, judgment, and even temperament. However, Iago has cleverly planted the seed of jealousy in Othello’s thoughts which have severely altered his judgment of Desdemona.

We see this as Othello questions her about the “moistness of her hands” (III, iv, 30) and continues to speak in riddles of her “liberal heart” (III, iv, 32). Then as she chooses the worst possible time to plead Cassio’s case, Othello finds his opening to ask for the handkerchief.

When she cannot produce it, Othello expresses his disapproval and tells her of the handkerchief’s history to show how important it is to him: That’s a fault. That handkerchief Did an Egyptian to my mother give.She was a charmer, and could almost read The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father Entirely to her love, but if she lost it Or made a gift of it, my father’s eyeShould hold her loathéd and his spirits should huntAfter new fancies. She, dying, gave it me, And bid me, when my fate would have me wived.To give it her. I did so; and take heed on‘t; Make it a darling like your precious eye.To lose it or give ‘t away were such perditionAs nothing else could match. (III, iv, 51-64)

Up to this point, the handkerchief to Desdemona has been only a reminder, a symbol, of Othello’s love; beyond that she did not realize how important it was to him. According to a passage in Harry Berger Jr.’s essay “Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona’s Handkerchief,” this “snowballing signifier… first appears simply as a love token given by Othello to Desdemona and therefore treasured by her” (385), but after Othello describes its significance, its meaning becomes magnified. “When the handkerchief is first given, it represents her virtue and their chaste love, but it later becomes a sign, indeed proof, of her unfaithfulness” (Berger 386) and the symbol that brings out the jealous nature of Othello.

After Othello makes his exit, Emilia tries to instruct Desdemona on the nature of jealousy. Emilia voices her opinion on the subject: “They [men] are not ever jealous for the cause,/But jealous for they’re jealous” (III, iv, 155-156), implying that men produce their own jealousy even when no cause is given. She senses danger and tries to warn the naïve Desdemona.

After the confrontation between Desdemona and Othello regarding the handkerchief, Emilia asks Desdemona, “Is not this man jealous?” (III, iv, 95). She is cynical about the unwitting answer that Desdemona gives and comments, “They [men] are all but stomachs, and we all but food;/They eat us hungerly, and when they are full/They belch us” (III, iv, 100-102). Her cynicism suggests that she could also be somewhat jealous of Desdemona. She may be tired of hearing Desdemona’s praise and support of Othello. After living with Iago all these years, Emilia may feel that perhaps all men are jealous, selfish, and even cruel. Her response to Othello’s reprimand of Desdemona over “the loss of a paltry handkerchief which Desdemona knew not was of value” (Potter 391) suggests this as well.

On another level, the handkerchief is also a symbol of jealousy for Bianca and Cassio. Cassio gives it to Bianca and asks her to copy the strawberry pattern that is on the handkerchief. She accuses him of giving her “some token from a newer friend” (IV, i, 176), and he realizes that Bianca is “jealous now” (IV, i, 180). She feels that this is a sign that Cassio loves someone else. The jealousy felt by Bianca towards Cassio parallels the primary jealousy in the play between Othello and Desdemona.

The handkerchief seems to symbolize love and jealousy simultaneously at times, but we ask ourselves – how can such a trivial little handkerchief cause all of this trouble? It is implied that the handkerchief is also a symbol of love’s mystical powers. Othello is convinced of this as he eloquently tells Desdemona of the magic it holds:‘Tis true. There’s magic in the web of it.A sibyl, that had numbered in the worldThe sun to course two hundred compasses,In her prophetic fury sewed the work;The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,And it was dyed in mummy which the skillfulConserved of maidens’ hearts. (III, iv, 65-71)

Shakespeare imagines this to be more of Othello’s ‘Moorish charm’ which he bestows on Desdemona, and we see that “Othello’s description to Desdemona of the mystic nature of the handkerchief…is not an irrelevance; he is in reality asking Desdemona to restore to him the sacredness of love” (Nowottny 515). His mother told him the handkerchief was given to her by an Egyptian charmer or mystic. It was important to his mother; it helped her “subdue” (III, iv, 55) his father. Therefore, he sees it as a mysterious symbol of love that has been passed on to him and Desdemona.

Not only do we see the magic of the handkerchief affecting Othello and Desdemona, but “‘the magic in the web’ of the handkerchief…extends into the fiber of the whole drama” (Heilman 256). At the beginning of the play Brabantio states that Desdemona “is abused, stol’n from me, and corrupted/By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks” (I, iii, 62-63). If her father could think that she loved Othello only because she was charmed to do so, perhaps Desdemona could also be convinced of the mystical power of the handkerchief.

If all Othello says is true about it “Then would to God that I had never seen’t!” (III, iv, 74) is Desdemona’s response. This also may explain Othello’s jealousy; according to one critic, “if he is jealous, it must be because of the handkerchief’s magic or loss” (Berger 384).Cassio’s interest in the handkerchief and the jealousy that it caused between him and Bianca also seems a bit mysterious. He did not know that it belonged to Desdemona or anything about its mystical origins, so what was its great attraction for him? He seems enthralled by the strawberry design that was woven into it and wants Bianca to copy it.

Perhaps, subconsciously, the red, succulent, sweet strawberries suggest to him a sensual passion. Possibly, the “sibyl” having sewn it with “hallowed” silk and used a special dye to color it red implies that she had woven her magic into the weave of it (III, iv, 66; 69).The mysticism of the handkerchief also affects Iago. What is it about the handkerchief that fascinates him? We learn from Emilia that “[Her] wayward husband hath a hundred times/Wooed [her] to steal it” (III, iii, 308-309). This tells us that Iago had thought about the handkerchief before, but there is nothing earlier in the play to suggest that he imminently planned on stealing it as part of his plot to destroy Othello.

Instead, the handkerchief seems to ‘magically’ work into his plans; ironically, it also contributes to his own downfall after Emilia reveals she stole it at Iago’s request. When Iago says to Roderigo, “Thou know’st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft” (II, iii, 330), he was no doubt unaware of the power Shakespeare implies emanates from the handkerchief. For if the loss of it “were such perdition” (III, iv, 63) for whomever lost it, it is possible that whomever found it would also be under the power of utter ruin and damnation.

We see this at the end of the play, when Othello kills Desdemona, Iago kills Emilia, and Othello injures Iago and then kills himself. Ernst Cassirer, in Shakespeare for Students, explains:In primitive thought, it is still very difficult to differentiate between the two spheres of being and meaning. They are constantly being confused: a symbol is looked upon as if it were endowed with magical or metaphysical powers. (434)Certainly, the symbolism of the handkerchief is a fascinating source of magnificent power throughout the play.It is ingenious to see how Shakespeare uses a simple little handkerchief to symbolize so many varied ideas.

The meanings of tradition, fidelity and love are expressed through its importance to Othello and Desdemona, but that very same love token is turned into a symbol of jealousy and seeming evidence of infidelity through the machinations of Iago. Because it was able to ‘magically’ touch the lives of so many characters, its apparent mystical powers are compelling and intriguing. Throughout this play the handkerchief evolves from a trifling object to a magnified symbol of love, jealous, and mysticism, and ultimately plays a pivotal role in The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. Among other warnings in this cautionary tale, Shakespeare reveals that what may seem unimportant in one context can actually turn out to be enormously significant in another.

Works Cited

  1. Berger, Harry Jr. “Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona’s Handkerchief.” Othello: Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed.
  2. Mark W. Scott. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1987. 380-386. 42 Vols. Print.
  3. Cassirer, Ernst. “Othello.” Othello: Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Mark W. Scott. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1992. 434. Print.
  4. Heilman, Robert B. “Wit and Witchcraft.” William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. Ed. Alvin Kernan. New York: Signet, 1963. 256. Print.
  5. Knight, G. Wilson. “The Othello Music.” The Wheel of Fire: Essays inInterpretation of Shakespeare’s Sombre Tragedies. Othello: ShakespeareanCriticism. Vol. 4. Ed.
  6. Mark W. Scott. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1987. 465. 42 Vols. Print.
  7. Nowottny, Winifred M.T. “Justice and Love in Othello.” Othello: ShakespeareanCriticism. Vol. 4. Ed.
  8. Mark W. Scott. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1987. 515. 42 Vols. Print.
  9. Potter, John. “Shakespeare, the Critical Heritage.” Othello: Shakespearean Criticism.Vol. 4. Ed.
  10. Mark W. Scott. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1987. 391. Print Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice.” Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed.
  11. Robert DiYanni. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 1307-1392. Print.

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