Desdemona’s Handkerchief: The Nexus between Incidental and Physical
The Shroud of Turin aside, few pieces of cloth have been analyzed as much as Desdemona’s handkerchief in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice. The handkerchief symbolizes love, virginity, power, marriage, ocular proof, and race to name just few of the many attributed meanings. In Othello, the handkerchief has both physical and symbolic interpretations: the characters imbue meanings upon the handkerchief that are incidental to its physical reality. Never in the play does a character directly refer any meaning to the handkerchief that would be distinct from any other trifle in the same role. As far as the characters are concerned, a watch could be adequate ocular proof for Othello, relationship leverage for Emilia, or foreign artifact for Desdemona if put in the same scenes. Yet the handkerchief as a handkerchief matters. There are certain symbolic meanings - implied by the text though not by the characters – which are not incidental to the handkerchief’s physical reality. When the incidental symbolic meanings and the physical symbolic meanings overlap, it indicates the most powerful interpretations for such a dramatically important trifle.
The handkerchief is primarily symbolic of Desdemona’s sexual virtue. The handkerchief as sexual virtue is a symbol that drives the critical action in the play. Othello’s demand for “ocular proof” (3.3.412) shows that he sees the handkerchief as representative of his wife’s marital fidelity. This symbolic nature has nothing to do with the physical reality of the handkerchief, but is a meaning imbued upon it by the situation in the play. In other words, the handkerchief itself does not matter. It could be any other object belonging to Desdemona and have the same symbolic value to Othello. Yet this symbolic value is strong enough to convince Othello that Desdemona is worth killing over her supposed infidelity:
By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in [Cassio’s] hand!
O perjured woman, thou dost stone my heart
And mak’st me call what I inted to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice! (5.2.78-81)
Othello has allowed the handkerchief to entirely assume its role as representative of Desdemona’s sexual fidelity to him. As a result, Othello decides to accept the circumstantial (and false) evidence of the handkerchief as physical proof: “Now I do see ‘tis true” (3.3.504). The meaning of the handkerchief for Othello becomes divorced from its physical reality, despite still having a defined physical space as a stage prop. Obviously, the handkerchief proves nothing. It is not truly conclusive evidence. But that is not important to Othello because the symbolism is not attached to the physical or tangible for him. Rather, Othello imbues such a strong symbolic incidental meaning upon the handkerchief that it inspires the play’s tragedy. This is not to say that the physical reality of the object does not have the capacity to create the same symbolism. But for Othello, the object itself is not considered. As a result, circumstantial evidence is able to replace ocular proof.
Despite Othello, the physical qualities of the handkerchief reinforce its symbolic meaning of marital fidelity. It is described by Iago as being “spotted with strawberries” (3.3.494). Shakespeare scholar Lynda Boose argues that the strawberries symbolize blood and that the handkerchief itself represents wedding-bed sheets. The handkerchief is “a visually recognizable reduction of Othello and Desdemona’s wedding-bed sheets, the visual proof of their consummated marriage, the emblem of the symbolic act of generation” (Boose 363). This comes from a historic precedent which originates from the Book of Deuteronomy and was used as evidence in the divorce proceedings of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon (Boose 364). Here the symbolic value of the handkerchief is tied to its physical manifestation. The strawberries would look like drops of blood from the seats. Thus the audience would see the spotted strawberries on the prop, and the interpretation would be understood from its visual quality. The physical reality of the prop reinforces Othello’s incidental interpretation, though it does not confirm his conclusion. To possess the handkerchief would be to have demonstrable proof of fidelity just as a blood-stained bed-sheet would prove consummation to the Elizabethans. The handkerchief, were it an actual equivalent of the marital bed-sheet, could be the ocular proof that Othello desires. Yet the handkerchief in reality proves nothing. The handkerchief cannot represent marital fidelity in any real sense because Iago is manipulating the situation unbeknownst to Othello and Desdemona. That the incidental meanings that Othello imbues upon the handkerchief are reinforced by its physical reality (something that Othello never verbally considers in this way) indicates that the handkerchief is a potent symbol wherein lies a nexus between incidental and physical interpretations of the object.
The handkerchief is also a symbol of power within a relationship. The characters apply this symbolism to the handkerchief. For example, Emilia says to herself in Act 2:
...I’ll have the work ta’en out
And give ‘t Iago. What he will do with it
Heaven knows, not I.
Nothing but to please his fantasy. (3.3.340-343)
Emilia sees the handkerchief as an object of power and leverage in two separate relationships. She wants to have the embroidery copied so that she can both return the handkerchief to Desdemona and provide her husband with that which he desires. In this she would preserve her master’s love and good will as well as have a tool for leverage on her husband. The latter is demonstrated a few lines later when Emilia asks Iago, “What will you give me now / For that same handkerchief?” (3.3.350-351). Emilia imbues symbolic power onto the handkerchief as it can provide security and even power in the two most significant relationships in her life. She is not the only character that ascribes this power to the object. According to scholar Harry Berger, Jr., Othello also interprets the handkerchief as an object of power within his marriage:
"[Othello] interprets [the loss of the handkerchief] as misuse of the generous gift of power he has bestowed on [Desdemona], the apotropaic power to ward off the contamination of their coupling by moderating the sexuality she arouses. This...alienated power, together with the sexuality he both desires and fears, makes Desdemona her captain’s captain and her general’s general" (Berger 238).
Desdemona has power over Othello through sex. Othello mentions in Act 1 that he will not allow sex to distract him (1.3.303-309), implying that Desdemona has a sexual power over Othello that must be resisted. Iago recognizes and laments his commander’s new “general” (2.3.333-334), demonstrating the influence that he feels Desdemona has. This power is made explicit when Othello claims that the handkerchief has the power to “subdue [his] father / Entirely to her love” (3.4.70). Thus the handkerchief is symbolic of power within the relationship he has with Desdemona. She is given significant influence in the relationship, but once Othello thinks himself betrayed, he asks for the return of the handkerchief in an attempt to redefine the power structure of the relationship in his favor.
There is also a physical and non-incidental manifestation of this symbolic meaning. When Othello mentions that he has a pain in his forehead, Desdemona suggests, “Let me but bind it hard...” (3.3.328). The handkerchief can be tied around Othello’s head as a means of curing a headache. In this way, Desdemona’s power within the relationship is demonstrated in a physical way. Through the handkerchief, she can heal Othello and bind herself to him. This act of binding represents their marital bonds, bonds which Desdemona surely wishes to tighten in the day following the completion of their wedding rites. Many objects can bind or tie. But the handkerchief itself is important because it is a feminine object in the play. This is not only suggested by its strawberry pattern in the first description (3.3.494), but also by the handkerchief’s ownership. Desdemona currently owns the handkerchief in the play, but Othello later claims that it was given to his mother by a female Egyptian charmer for the purposes of controlling men (3.4.65-71). The ownership of the handkerchief is not necessarily a physical quality of the real object, but the characters all seem to understand it as feminine. Likely this feminine quality is reflected in its physicality with features that fit an Elizabethan normative standard for a feminine object. This would make the physical handkerchief connected to feminine power in a way that any other object could not fulfill. The make no mention of the physical nature of the handkerchief in ascribing its power. Yet their interpretations are reinforced through analysis of the physical object.
The handkerchief is also a racial object. The second description of the handkerchief which is given by Othello offers both a legend of the handkerchief and a description of its physical qualities. Both indicate that the handkerchief is symbolic of Othello’s race. The handkerchief is supposedly an Egyptian object with magical properties associated with it (3.4.65-74). The origin of the object and its magical properties are incidental to the actual cloth. Rather, they emphasize its symbolic connection to races, cultures, and traditions foreign to Elizabethan society. The handkerchief is a powerful, foreign object which has been put into domestic use. This is a clear reflection of Othello himself. He is a Moor and a military man that is a part of Venetian society, yet always remains distinct due to his race. In the discussion of the handkerchief’s origins, Othello seems to be reminding Desdemona that she shares in his race through the bonds of marriage. Desdemona has become foreign as well. That this meaning is incidental to the handkerchief itself offers an interesting reflection on race. Like the racial meaning of the handkerchief, race is meaning imbued upon a social construct. Race only means as much as humans decide because it is not based in clearly defined physical realities. In the same way, Othello creates the racial meaning for the handkerchief without regard for the physical reality of the object.
Still, this racial meaning can be drawn from the physical qualities of the handkerchief. The cloth is described as being “dyed in mummy” (3.4.86). Ian Smith claims that “mummy” means a bituminous substance used in the mummification process. The substance would have given the handkerchief a black color (Smith 18). This is a clear allusion to Othello’s skin color. It also contrasts with the initial description of the handkerchief as spotted with strawberries. That initial description presumes some white or off-white color that would allow the strawberry print to contrast. The black handkerchief that Othello describes does not fit. The play is creating a contrast to emphasize the racial symbolism of the handkerchief through its physical attributes. The handkerchief has been blackened just like Desdemona has through her marriage. Smith also argues that dark cloth was a common way to depict black skin in Shakespeare’s time: “Blackness, or more accurately the imitation of black skin, was achieved through the use of cloth...covering the face, neck, and extremities” (Smith 10). Black cloth not only indicated race, but became race. The character under the cloth is entirely covered and defined by the color. Thus the attributes of the handkerchief become symbolic in the physical space of the play. Desdemona and Othello cannot escape the defining nature of Othello’s race. The handkerchief’s real qualities reinforce the constructed symbolism that is incidental to the object. Othello chooses to construct the meaning by providing the handkerchief’s backstory. Yet the physical attributes reinforce this symbol and help to define it outside of the characters’ ideas and interpretations.
The handkerchief is the most potent symbol in Shakespeare’s Othello. It has multiple layers of meaning that offer diverse interpretations of the play. The strongest and most important symbolic meanings, though, are both incidental to and based on the handkerchief. The characters see the object as representative of fidelity, power, and race without regard to the handkerchief’s physical nature, but each of these meanings is made stronger by examining the handkerchief itself. This discussion of the nexus between physical and incidental is far from isolated to the topic of the handkerchief. Other very similar binaries exist in Othello, for instance Iago’s distinction between seeming and being or Othello’s insistence on ocular proof rather than hearsay. Each reveals a tension between the physical and the abstract that exists throughout the play in many different ways. The handkerchief may be a “[trifle] light as air” (3.3.370) as an object, but as a symbol the handkerchief illuminates larger questions about the connections between the physical world and the meanings we assign it.
Berger, Harry, Jr. "Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona's Handkerchief." Shakespeare Quarterly 47.3 (1996): 235-50. JSTOR. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
Boose, Lynda E. "Othello's Handkerchief: "The Recognizance and Pledge of Love"" English Literary Renaissance 5.3 (1975): 360-74. Print.
Smith, Ian. "Othello's Black Handkerchief." Shakespeare Quarterly 64.1 (2013): 1-25. Project MUSE. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.