One Critic Said That Shakespeare's "Othello" Should Be Called "The Tragedy Of The Handkerchief." What Did He Mean?


2 Answers

Will Martin Profile
Will Martin answered
The 18th-century critic, Nicholas Rowe, found "Othello" a ridiculous play, mainly because so much of the action does centre around a handkerchief. Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army, gives his wife, Desdemona, a handkerchief which belonged to his mother, and which was said to have magical properties: a wife who had it would keep her husband's love. Desdemona cherishes the gift and carries it everywhere. Othello's "ancient" or standard-bearer, Iago, who secretly hates Othello, persuades his wife to steal the handkerchief and then plants it on Cassio, his lieutenant, whose position Iago wants. Cassio gives it to a prostitute, and Iago arranges for Othello to find this out. With this "evidence" and Iago's false testimony, Othello becomes convinced that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio, and strangles her. When the truth is revealed he kills himself. Rowe sarcastically said that the play had little value except as "a warning to all good wives, that they look to their linen."
Patricia Devereux Profile
Why is the jealousy-enraged Othello so obsessed with Desdemona's "handkerchief spotted with strawberries"?
The handkerchief was given to Othello's mother by an Egyptian charmer who said that if the mother lost it, his "father's eye/Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt/After new fancies."
When the handkerchief is stolen by Iago's wife and Desdemona cannot produce it on Othello's demand, it is a clear symbol of her constancy: if she is as careless with his precious gift, she may be as careless with his affections.
But, in a Shakespeare class at the University of California, Berkeley, I heard a fascinating reinterpretation of the symbolism by a professor.
In Mediterranean countries like Italy -- the play takes place in Venice -- the sheets are hung on the line the morning after the wedding night. If they have stains of hymen blood on them, the wife was a virgin. The professor believed that the handkerchief's "spots" of strawberry embroidery symbolized Desdemona's hymen blood -- and her fidelity to Othello.

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