There are a several symbolic items and events in Othello. The main ones are:
- the handkerchief – love and betrayal
- green color – jealousy
- the Willow Song – grief, death.
Shakespeare’s Othello is a renowned classic of English literature. The tragedy of character, love, and trust still finds its relevance in the world of today. One of the most notable aspects of this story, however, is the use of symbolism and figurative language.
The symbols help to fill the play with extra meaning, give context to some of the more subtle themes of the piece. One such symbol is the handkerchief. Given to Othello’s wife Desdemona by her husband, it has different meanings for each character. Handkerchief, originally belonging to Othello’s mother, was an essential piece of memorabilia. As the Moor tells:
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people: she told her, while
she kept it,
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies: she, dying, gave it me.”
(Act 3, scene 4)
Symbolizing his mother’s faithfulness, it was a treasured gift for Desdemona. Othello viewed it as a sign of her fidelity. To Desdemona, it embodied love the man held for her, and the sense of connection. When Desdemona accidentally lost the gift, Iago used it to manipulate Othello. The villain twisted the meaning of the handkerchief, presenting its loss as proof of Desdemona’s alleged disloyalty. To Iago, the handkerchief represented power, an opportunity to achieve his goals.
Another prominent symbol is the presence of green color. Feelings and concepts are often color-coded in both literature and art. Some colors have a strong association in the human mind, formed by instinct and culture. The use of color language helps to enrich the narrative and present information in an interesting way.
The color green, in that regard, is used to represent feelings of jealousy. Iago, during the course of the story, describes it as a “green-eyed monster”. In this case, the color helps to describe the emotion. Jealousy is used by Iago to manipulate Othello into doubting his love and ruining his and Desdemona’s life. Othello, thinking that his wife betrayed him, kills his wife. The jealousy plays a central role in the plot of Othello and serves as the main character’s ultimate undoing.
The last notable symbol is the Willow Song, sung by Desdemona. Willows are the trees usually associated with sadness, grief mourning. Their appearance in Shakespeare’s plays signals the death of a woman. Evocative of other Shakespeare’s works, the tree also makes an appearance in Othello. Feeling heartbroken and distraught over her husband, Desdemona sings the Willow Song:
“The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow:
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow:
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones.”
(Act 4, scene 3)
The use of symbolic imagery makes the song sound more poetic and make a larger impact on the audience. Through song, Desdemona’s feelings of sadness, grief, and doubt are displayed. The usage of this particular symbol can also clue the reader in on Desdemona’s unfortunate end early on. Desdemona seems to be destined to die at the hands of her tragic love, Othello. Willow represents the death of Desdemona’s love, and the death of the woman herself.