Othello’s Handkerchief: An Overly Symbolic Object?

Surely Othello’s handkerchief is one of the most symbolic items in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Yet the four-century long debate about its significance, colour, and dramatic function means that today teaching this aspect of the play easily becomes mired in an excess of interpretations. Whilst, as English teachers, we often encourage students to explore a range of ideas, one might be forgiven for feeling that the handkerchief has generated too many meanings – just as when Othello’s imagination causes the seeds planted by Iago to grow out of control.

One of the play’s earliest critics, seventeenth-century writer Thomas Rymer, complained about the juxtaposition of this surfeit of meaning with the physical insignificance of the object itself. He asked “Why was not this call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief? What can be more absurd […] the handkerchief is so remote a trifle” that no-one “could make any consequence from it”. Despite his caustic dismissal of Othello due to the unbelievability of its plot, Rymer may actually hit the nail on the head here: this flimsy piece of fabric is indeed overloaded with meaning, and its use as “ocular proof” in the play stretches credibility. Yet, perhaps this is the very point. Iago’s linguistic influence is so great that all he needs is an insignificant piece of fabric to precipitate Othello’s downfall. Shakespeare is drawing our attention to the power of innate malevolence fuelled by racism, misogyny, and jealousy.

Or, perhaps, Othello’s violent reaction to seeing the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand stems from his deep-seated insecurities; Othello’s anxieties about his own identity mean that one tiny detail has the power to propel his already precarious marriage to a destruction which was a definite possibility from as early as Act 1 Scene 3.* In this interpretation, the “too little” handkerchief becomes a focal point or a proxy for the themes of race, gender, age, and social class which set Othello on his disastrous trajectory much earlier in the action. Before the handkerchief appears, Othello is at a turning point in his relationship with Desdemona: whilst towards the beginning of 3.3 he insists “I do love thee”, in the same breath he says “when I love thee not”. Shortly after this, he demands “ocular proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity from Iago, but this actually seems to be completely unnecessary as when Iago simply describes seeing Cassio with the handkerchief, Othello commits himself to finding a “swift means of death” for his wife and has sworn his troth to Iago in a quasi-marriage ceremony. He has not yet discovered that Desdemona no longer has the handkerchief (3.4), nor has he seen Cassio handling it (4.1). This sequencing of events suggests to me that the handkerchief is – as Rymer argued – insignificant in itself, but rather that it becomes a symbol for the fracture lines which already exist in Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, and which run throughout the Venetian culture as depicted in the play.

What follows is a selection of reading materials for helping students to navigate a range of critical opinions about the handkerchief, and to support them in developing their own opinion on this polysemous symbol. This resource is not intended to be exhaustive, but to provide a manageable way for A Level students to consider this particular symbol, and to develop their understanding of critical discourse and debate.

*This is a debate for another day, but note in particular the lines “she lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, / And I lov’d her that she did pity them” from Act 1. This is hardly a recipe for a successful relationship.

Othello’s Handkerchief: Critical Opinions about its Colour

In most productions of Othello, the handkerchief used is white and spotted with red strawberries. However, some critics argue that the material itself should be black as, in 3.4, Othello describes the handkerchief as being “dyed in mummy” – a black substance. These two perspectives have resulted in much debate about our interpretation of what the handkerchief symbolises in the play.

Critical perspectives:

In an article of 2005, Janelle Jenstad articulated the generally accepted interpretation of the white handkerchief: “the metonymic connection between handkerchief, wedding sheets, and Desdemona’s body”. Othello sees the handkerchief being held by Cassio, just as he imagines Desdemona’s body has been. The white handkerchief with its red strawberries seems to represent the Renaissance ideal of female beauty: a white complexion with blushing red cheeks.

Yet in 2013, Ian Smith attempted to change the tide of critical debate, introducing the fascinating argument that the handkerchief was most likely black in colour, and acted as “a portable version or extension of Othello” for Desdemona to carry with her. Smith draws attention to the quotation “dyed in mummy”, a black substance. Instead of symbolising Desdemona’s body, Smith posits that the handkerchief represents Othello himself. This reading emphasises how – like the handkerchief – Othello is a “mere trifle” in European society. Smith further postulates that a black handkerchief embroidered with the pattern of strawberries (a well-known pattern in England during the period) symbolises the inter-racial marriage at the heart of the play.

Whilst Smith’s reading has opened up many interesting discussions about the play, more recent critics suggest that his argument is not convincing. In 2020, Helen Smith argues that there is more evidence in the play that the handkerchief is white than black. (See Smith’s video entitled “Desdemona’s Handkerchief” on MASSOLIT.) Similarly, the British Library Website provides a picture of a white linen handkerchief decorated with cutwork, needle lace and embroidery, Italian, c. 1600 – Victoria and Albert Museum. This historical artefact may be evidence of what the Renaissance audience would have imagined when they heard the word handkerchief. (Italian handkerchief – The British Library (bl.uk)

The Handkerchief’s Materiality

Whilst the colour of the handkerchief may still be a debated point, the range of uses of the handkerchief has been well established by critics:

  • A love token, which could be used as a symbol of fidelity.
  • A high status, luxury item which would have been extremely expensive to buy, partly due to the work needed for intricate embroidery.
  • An intimate object, kept close to the body in a pocket and used for personal, bodily functions.
  • Linked with other household fabrics, and therefore often part of a woman’s dowry. This would have been storied and looked after carefully. It also makes a connection between the handkerchief and bedsheets.

These uses of the handkerchief go some way to explaining why it gains such significance in Othello’s mind.

In 1975, Lynda Boose argued that the white handkerchief spotted with strawberries becomes linked to the wedding sheets that Desdemona bids Emilia to put on her bed. “The wedding sheets and the handkerchief represent one another”, Boose suggests, “the red strawberries and the stains of Desdemona’s blood mirroring each other on their white backgrounds”. Here, Boose is referring to a commonly known test for a bride’s virginity: there should be blood on the bed sheets after the marriage is consummated. The fact that the handkerchief then passes through the hands of many characters reveals the debasement of Desdemona’s sexual identity – particularly as the final character to receive the handkerchief is the prostitute Bianca. A love token which should symbolise fidelity and the sanctity of marriage ends up with a character for whom faithfulness is unimportant (although note here that Bianca is actually a much more complex character – but that’s a discussion for another day!). It is significant that neither Emilia nor Bianca manage to copy the pattern – Shakespeare seems to suggest that these women cannot emulate the image of married life followed by Desdemona.

The link between the handkerchief, bedsheets, and blood reminds us that the handkerchief is linked with other bodily fluids. In her 2020 MASSOLIT video, Helen Smith explains that “the handkerchief is something which hovers at the verges of the body; it’s something that’s intimate with bodily fluids, as well as being displayed and available to the outside world”. The boundaries between private and public spaces and concerns are frequently blurred in the play; think of how Brabantio disrupts an emergency military meeting in Act 1 Scene 3 with his tale of his daughter’s marriage. Throughout the play, Shakespeare reveals how society often determines private affairs (such as the individual’s choice of marriage partner), whilst private conversations also intrude into the public realm (such as Othello’s concerns about his marriage leading to social chaos in Act 5 Scene 1). In a time in history when the place of the individual in society was much debated, Shakespeare demonstrates the impossibility of divorcing these two realms.

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