A Burdened Cloth: An Analysis of the Many Symbols of the Handkerchief

Even the most trivial items can often hold a great significance. In the play Othello written by William Shakespeare, symbolism occurs throughout, namely in the form of Desdemona’s handkerchief. Othello sees the handkerchief as a symbol of his and Desdemona’s marriage, while Iago sees it an opportunity to execute his vengeance on Othello. The handkerchief is not only significant to the main characters though, as Emilia sees the handkerchief as chance to satisfy her husband, Iago. However, what the handkerchief represents begins to change over the course of the play. The handkerchief represents love for some characters and an opportunity for others; it is what the handkerchief represents to each character that causes him or her to act uncharacteristically.
The handkerchief represents Desdemona’s faithfulness to Othello, though his perception of it changes for the worse over the course of the play. Othello views the handkerchief as a sign of fidelity, which is why he originally gave the handkerchief to Desdemona. He later mentions the handkerchief’s history within his family, and “if [my mother] lost [the handkerchief] or made a gift of it, my father’s eye should hold her loathed” (3.4.71-74). Not only does this brief history foreshadow what Othello would do if Desdemona were ever to cheat on him, but also emphasizes the personal connection Othello has with it, therefore making any betrayal of the symbol that it holds all the more magnified. When Iago tells Othello that Desdemona had given the handkerchief away to her supposed lover, Cassio, Othello’s faith in Desdemona crumbles. At that point, the handkerchief comes to symbolize motivation for murder. He then asks Iago to “furnish [him with some swift means of death for [Desdemona]” (3.3.544-545). Instead of simply punishing Desdemona, he instead chooses the extreme option of ending her life, an uncharacteristic act of Othello. Even a minor character, Lodovico, later wonders if Othello was the same “noble moor…whom passion could not shake” that people thought of him as, which highlights the change in Othello’s behavior (4.1.299-301). Thus, Othello’s association of his passionate love for Desdemona with the handkerchief ultimately causes him to uncharacteristically commit a heinous crime.
Emilia initially views Desdemona’s handkerchief as an opportunity to fulfill her role as a good wife to Iago in order for her to be in his good graces. She sees the handkerchief as a “way to please her husband Iago by doing what he wished” (3.3.343). Because she wants to “please” her husband, Emilia wants him to appreciate and perceive her in a positive light. By the final scene, however, Emilia realizes that the handkerchief was a catalyst for the destruction of love and trust between Othello and Desdemona. When Othello reveals that it was the handkerchief that drove him to murder Desdemona, Emilia understands the weight of the situation by responding “O God! O heavenly God!”(5.2.258). At this point, Emilia’s view of the handkerchief changes from an opportunity to a betrayal of loyalty between her and Desdemona. Due to this realization, Emilia cries out that she would let others “cry shame against [her], yet [she’ll] speak” the truth about Iago’s manipulation anyways, which proves that she no longer cares about how others see her because of what her actions caused (5.2.263). Therefore, the symbolism of the handkerchief causes Emilia to act both in character as someone looking for approval and out of character as someone who acts without thinking about how others will perceive her.
Like Emilia, Iago sees the handkerchief as a chance to achieve a goal: to seek revenge. Upon realizing the handkerchief’s potential for his vengeance, Iago devises a plan to exploit Othello’s passionate attachment to it. When trying to persuade Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, Iago uses the handkerchief to satisfy Othello’s demand for ocular proof, stating that it “may help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.488-489). By possessing the incriminating evidence required to support his “proofs,” specifically the lie about Cassio dreaming about Desdemona, Iago now has the power to manipulate Othello. However, the handkerchief does not always cause uncharacteristic actions. The opportunity presented by the handkerchief did not necessarily instigate Iago’s plan for revenge, because his subsequent manipulation and deception were not entirely out of his character. Still, the handkerchief represented a definitive step Iago needed to take in order to complete his vengeance because it provoked him to carry out his plan. Thus, when Emilia gave Iago the handkerchief, it became much more than an opportunity: it was the key to successfully carry out his revenge plot against Othello. The opportunity presented by the handkerchief thus leads to Iago enact his plot for revenge with more direct confrontation, which is a step away from his usual approach as the hidden manipulator.
Throughout the play, the handkerchief initially represents many different concepts such as love and opportunity, but then it becomes a symbol of infidelity and revenge that causes the characters to act differently from their normal behavior. When I was reading this play, I viewed the handkerchief as a signifier of looming tragedy: when the handkerchief holds a close and symbolic meaning for a character, his or her life changes for the worse. Therefore the handkerchief serves as more than just a symbol for the character, but also for the readers themselves.






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