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.
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.
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.