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What is the significance of the handkerchief in Othello?

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The handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello belongs to Desdemona, Othello’s wife. This accessory is an example of rich symbolism in Shakespeare’s writings. It has a lot of various meanings that change throughout the play. From a symbol of loyalty, it became a symbol of betrayal, utter confusion, conspiracy, and death.

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The quivering and innocent Desdemona is impressed by the exploits of the Moor. Behind external unattractiveness, the woman discerned Othello’s strong will and fearlessness. Desdemona herself takes the first step and confesses her feelings to the general. Lovers secretly get married. The Moor gives his young wife a present: a handkerchief that Othello got from his mother. According to legend, a beautiful thing will keep love and happiness in the family hearth. In act 3, scene 4, Othello says:

“…she, dying, gave it me;
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so: and take heed on’t;
Make it a darling like your precious eye;
To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match”.

The first cracks in the relationship of the newlyweds appear after an innocent conversation. Desdemona asks her husband to take pity on Cassio (the general’s subordinate). The girl does not suspect that the enemies have already built an insidious plan and easily falls into a trap.

Desdemona sees that her husband is anxious. She tries to show her love and relieve Othello from his worries. She is trying to wipe the sweat from Othello’s forehead with the handkerchief. The man rejects the concern and throws it away.

This scene depicts Othello’s jealousy and hesitations. He is still trying to shake away the suspicion as he throws away the handkerchief. Desdemona tries to keep balance by using this handkerchief to show his care for his husband. However, Othello is already too blind to the truth, meaning her love and care for him.

Handkerchief as a symbol of manipulated lives

Being influenced by Iago’s rumors, Othello believes in Desdemona’s betrayal. When Desdemona attempts to refresh his forehead with her handkerchief, his gift, he throws it away in anger. Iago’s wife, Emilia, picks up the handkerchief. The loss of the gift was a crucial moment in the fate of Desdemona. Realizing its loss, she exclaims:

“Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief:
I am most unhappy in the loss of it.”
(Act 3, scene 4)

Here the handkerchief represents how many lives have fallen into Iago’s manipulation. With this handkerchief, Emilia passes Othello and Desdemona’s lives into Iago’s hands.

Handkerchief as a symbol of betrayal and death

The handkerchief falls into Iago’s hands. Then the villain plots an evil plan on how to plant it to Cassio:

“I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin,
And let him find it. Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ: this may do something.
The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur.”
(Act 3, scene 3)

Cassio does not know whose handkerchief it is and takes it for himself. Othello can barely curb his jealousy, but demands from Iago proof of Desdemona’s adultery. Iago claims to have heard Cassio whispering Desdemona’s name in his sleep. He also noticed Desdemona’s handkerchief at Cassio’s. So, Iago manages to drive Othello to frenzy.

When Desdemona tries to put in a good word for Cassio, Othello demands to show the handkerchief. As she cannot do this, Othello bursts into grievous insults and abuse. Now, the Moor is sure – Desdemona is cheating on him. In a furious rage, he strangles Desdemona. Then, upon learning of his mistake, he stabs himself.

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