The Handkerchief in Othello

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

William Shakespeare makes great use of symbols in the tragedy ''Othello.'' One of those symbols is Desdemona's handkerchief. In this lesson, we'll take a look at what the handkerchief symbolizes.

Symbols and Meanings

William Shakespeare's play Othello was written more than 400 years ago, but its themes of jealousy, love and betrayal still ring true today. The play is full of symbols and mysteries for audience members to parse out. One of the symbols we see in the play is that of a handkerchief. On the outside, the handkerchief is a simple a piece of cloth owned by Othello's wife, Desdemona. If we take a deeper look, however, we can see that the handkerchief also has deeper meaning.

The Handkerchief as Truth

The very first time we see the handkerchief is just after Othello starts suspecting his wife of being unfaithful. Iago has suggested to Othello that Desdemona is sneaking around with a character named Cassio. Othello is so worked up that when his wife comes in he says 'I am to blame.'

Desdemona realizes that something is wrong and asks Othello how he is feeling. Othello tells her that he has a headache. Desdemona immediately takes out her handkerchief and presses it against Othello's head. He pulls it off his head and brushes it to the ground. Desdemona responds to his rude behavior by saying 'I am very sorry that you are not well.'

It is most likely that Othello does not even realize that he threw the handkerchief on the ground. Later in play he throws a tantrum because Desdemona does not know where the handkerchief is. In this scene, the handkerchief may represent Desdemona's desire to heal Othello of his distress. Since it is brushed away without being noticed, it may also represent the concept of truth. Othello simply brushes it away because he is too disturbed by his own thoughts and suspicions to see what's really true - that his wife is faithful and cares about him.

The Handkerchief as Othello's Sanity and Desdemona's Safety

After Desdemona leaves, another character named Emilia comes in and picks up the handkerchief. Emilia is married to Iago, the mastermind who is planning to make Othello crazy with jealousy. As she picks the handkerchief up, she points out that her husband has asked to her steal it a hundred times. Interestingly, she says to herself that she will simply have a copy made of the handkerchief and give the duplicate to her husband since 'What he will do with it / Heaven knows, not I.'

If Emilia had simply made a copy of the handkerchief and then returned the original to Desdemona, her life and reputation would have been spared. Instead, she caves in and gives it to her husband. In this instance, the handkerchief represents Desdemona's life and Othello's sanity, both of which are in peril in Iago's hands.

The Handkerchief as Fidelity and Loyalty

Once Iago gets a hold of the handkerchief he plants it in Michael Cassio's room. After he does this, he goes running back to Othello and casually asks 'Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief / Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?' When Othello says that the handkerchief was his first gift to Desdemona, Iago says that he has seen Michael Cassio use that exact handkerchief to wipe his beard.

This is all it takes to truly push Othello over the edge. Just a few lines after hearing this news, Othello cries 'O, blood, blood, blood' and vows revenge. In this scene, the handkerchief is again used to make Othello feel insane. We can safely say that what Othello is truly angry about is the idea that Desdemona has cheated on him with Michael Cassio.

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