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William Shakespeare's Othello: What Is The Meaning & Symbolism Of The Handkerchief Scene?
OTHELLO'S DEADLY CATALYST: The handkerchief scene in William Shakespeare's Othello is the pivotal point of the play. It symbolises the love and marital fidelity between the couple, but later becomes a sinister weapon in Desdemona's demise.
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IN WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S OTHELLO a handkerchief becomes the catalyst for the Moor's brutal murder of
his wife Desdemona. How could a simple piece of cloth have such a deadly impact? By Ben Arogundade.
WITHIN TRADITIONAL MEDIEVAL and renaissance poetry, the handkerchief is a powerful symbol of a woman’s romantic favour. This is well denoted within the cultural practice of old in which a lady would deliberately drop the item for a knight to retrieve and keep as a token of her affection.
HANDKERCHIEF SIGNIFICANCE & SYMBOLISM
In William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the symbolism of Desdemona’s handkerchief is central to the play’s tragic dénouement. Mentioned over 30 times within the text, the item is both distinct in design — white, and dotted with images of strawberries — and imbued with a deep history. Othello’s first gift to his wife, it was woven using silk from sacred worms, and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. It was originally a gift from Othello’s father to his mother, and was subsequently presented to Desdemona as a token of their love and fidelity. This backstory imbues the handkerchief with added symbolic value, rendering it more like a precious artefact than a mere piece of cloth.
IAGO MANIPULATES HANDKERCHIEF
The reverence with which Desdemona regards the handkerchief resonates throughout the plays scenes. As a symbol of his love and trust she keeps it about her constantly, “to kiss and talk to.” (Act III, scene 3).
When Iago learns of the significance and symbolism of the item within their relationship, he skilfully manipulates it by placing it into Cassio’s unknowing possession, thereby presenting it as false evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity. The resulting chain reaction leads to her brutal murder at the hands of her enraged husband.
The handkerchief is a powerful metaphor within the play’s turning point. It becomes, as critic James Hodgson affirms, “an emblem of her reputation”: a pseudonym for the wedding sheets from their marital bed, now allegedly soiled by an intruder. Desdemona’s identity and sexuality become superimposed onto the handkerchief itself.
It is interesting to consider that if Shakespeare was working today, what turning point device would he use to symbolise Desdemona's alleged infidelity, now that the age of women and handkerchiefs is over? This idea was examined in the movie Internal Affairs (1990) in which the plot, like Othello, is similarly animated with the theme of jealousy. Andy Garcia's character, Raymond Avilla, is presented with a pair of his wife's panties by Richard Gere's Iago-esque character, Dennis Peck, as false proof of her adulterous nature.
NEXT: MORE ABOUT SHAKESPEARE'S OTHELLO
THE CULTURE OF SHAKESPEARE