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Q. In Othello, the handkerchief becomes of paramount importance.

Discuss with reference to the object.

The handkerchief in Othello, a play written by Shakespeare in the early part


of the 17th century, has an extremely significant role to play, in the sense that
it brings about the actual change in Othello. He moves from asking for
“ocular proof” to accepting circumstantial evidence, that is at best, hearsay.

The handkerchief is given to Desdemona by the Moor, who tells her that it
has been woven by a two hundred year old sybil or female prophet using silk
from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins.
This was the first gift that Othello had given Desdemona and she keeps it
close to herself, so that she has it “to kiss and talk to”. (Act III, scene 3)

Othello considers the handkerchief to be sacred and also mentions that his
mother used it to keep his father loyal to her. The handkerchief thus
becomes a symbol for fidelity in the marriage. Othello is a simple man, who
could be destroyed by a man far less gifted than Iago. The sexual obsessive
ness he catches from the Machiavellian Iago develops into a dualism that
renders him insane. When Desdemona is unable to produce the
handkerchief, Othello is finally convinced of her guilt and is prompted into
action by Iago.

The pattern of strawberries, dyed with the blood of virgins, on a white


background, strongly represents the bloodstains left on the sheets on a
virgin’s wedding night; the handkerchief then becomes more than just a
piece of embroidered cloth and becomes a symbol that implicitly suggests a
guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity. Losing it marks Desdemona with
an indelible stamp of infidelity; Othello, on the other hand, is merely
grateful to Iago for his help and support in such hard times. Iago superbly
responds “I am your own for ever”, however meaning quite the opposite-
“You too are now an absence.”

In the 17th century, women were assigned the role of the homemaker. They
stayed at home and looked after the children and worked on the house,
taking care of the few animals that the family possessed. If a woman was
employed, the highest position she could attain was that of a midwife and
that too, if only sanctioned by a Bishop.
The domination of the fairer sex by the male sex can also be noticed in the
way that Brabantio and Iago speak about Desdemona. The latter is spoken
of, as if she were an object or a piece of property. Iago tells Brabantio “You
are robbed”, while Brabantio brands Othello a “foul thief” and says of
Desdemona- “She is… stolen from me and corrupted.”

Thus, it is the symbolism of the handkerchief and not the object itself that
Iago chooses to use against Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. It
exposes the fact that no matter how much Othello professes to love
Desdemona, it is he who is socially superior to her and can choose to kill her
in cold blood if he wishes to punish her for her supposed infidelity. The
handkerchief thus becomes a token of the patriarchal society.

As Harold Bloom writes in Modern Critical Interpretations: Othello,


jealousy in Shakespeare, is a mask for the fear of death, since what the
jealous lover fears is that there will not be enough time or space left for
himself. However, we cannot understand Othello’s jealousy without first
understanding Iago’s envy for Othello, which is at the hidden centre of the
drama. “I am not what I am” is what he continuously says of himself- a
direct and darker opposite to God’s proclamation “I am that I am”, in reply
to Moses.

The handkerchief’s colour comes from dyes made of the blood from the
hearts of mummified virgins. This detail becomes particularly macabre
sounding, because it hints at virgin sacrifices in order to ‘conserve’ their
virginity. When the handkerchief gets lost, Othello assigns it a talismanic
force and punishes Desdemona with death. This is only possible in a highly
patriarchal society where a woman, aside from being treated like a second
rate citizen, could only either be a whore or an angelic wife.

Paul Yachnin remarks, the properties of the handkerchief - “reproducible,


exchangeable and (its) cash value”, all apply to Desdemona too. She is
merely an object rather than a subject. Naomi Scheman argues that the
handkerchief is more of a shifting signifier- at first symbolising
Desdemona’s power over Othello, a maternal sign and then becoming a
paternal sign in Act V.

Harold C Goddard calls Iago a ‘moral pyromaniac’ and it is quite evident


how Iago sets fire to himself throughout the play. His hatred for Othello is
unquenchable and what may have started as hatred on a professional level,
quickly transgresses into a racial hatred. The handkerchief that Desdemona
loses and which Emilia picks up to give to Iago, gives him the perfect
opportunity to set ablaze Othello’s relationship with his ‘white’ Desdemona.

Othello slowly starts losing his humanity, while taking on the mentality of a
savage. The symbolic link between his ‘savage’ behaviour and his race is
now sown in the minds of the audience.

The alliance of a black man with a white woman was completely


unacceptable to Venetian society and this perhaps increases Iago’s vile
feelings of hatred against Iago. The handkerchief provides Iago with an easy
option of giving vent to his racial hatred against Othello by poisoning his
mind against Desdemona and her supposed unfaithfulness.

That such a trivial object would cause such a crisis or calamity infuriated
Thomas Rymer. In his Short View of Tragedy… with some reflections on
Shakespeare (1697), Rymer complains “…Why was not this call’d the
Tragedy of the Handkerchief?” Indeed, it is the handkerchief that causes the
play to end on this note of death that could have well been prevented. Infact,
A.C. Bradley‘s notion still hold true: exchange Othello and Hamlet and there
would be no plays. Othello would instantly chop Claudius down and Hamlet
would immediately see through Iago. Unfortunately, there are no Hamlets or
inspired clowns in Othello and Desdemona is no Portia either. The play ends
with the deaths of the once happy couple- deaths that were brought about by
the cunning use of one single white handkerchief embroidered with a pattern
of red strawberries.