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The Significance of the Handkerchief in Othello

  • Date Submitted: 03/28/2010 01:54 PM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 52.1 
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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...

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