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The Deadly Handkerchief: A Study of Othello by William Shakespeare

For centuries of its long existence, the humanity has always tried to maintain the balance between the material and the ideal. Being juxtaposed, these two essential philosophic categories are still in close connection with each other. We usually try to find a kind of material representation of this or that ideal phenomenon, and, correspondingly, sometimes attempt to charge some purely material objects with some ideal meanings. The attempts to connect the idea and the matter, made by the humanity, have resulted into emergence of symbolism as a specific “practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character”. The most powerful symbols and iconic signs, those which represent the most valuable ideas, are constantly being viewed as objects of discussion and even causes for clashes. The starting point for such conflicts in the Western cultural paradigm can be seen in Byzantine iconoclasm and the activity of John of Damascus. Their continuations are very frequent now – it is enough to mention Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, which resulted into massive Muslim protests all over the world.

Situations when a conflict or trouble is evoked by a symbolic object are rather typical in fiction: The Holy Grail (one of the plots of Arthurian literature), The Philosopher’s Stone (sought by Ben Jonson’s Alchemist and Johann Goethe’s Faust), The Ring of Power (introduces into common use by J.R.R. Tolkien), etc. However, the most famous one is, undoubtedly, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. The tragic pathos of this literary work is even deeper than those mentioned above: the symbolic artifacts described in The Arthurian Legend, in Faust, and in The Lord of the Rings bore some magic powers, and the material symbol employed in Othello – the handkerchief – was just a trifle which caused such a big tragedy.

Tom McAlindon states that Othello definitely stands apart from the other three “great tragedies” (xxiii) – the term offered by A.C. Bradley to single out HamletMacbethOthello, and King Lear from other less universal tragedies (Bradley 37). The main idea of this play is not connected with the royal power – basically, its plot has almost nothing to do with political discourse so typical of the rest of the tragedies. Instead, it is mainly focused upon the problem of love, hatred, treachery, and revenge. It is not the will to power that motivated Iago’s deeds but, on the one hand, the desire to take revenge upon Othello and Cassio for his suspicions about them and his wife. And, on the other hand, it is a strong wish to get some recognition and encouragement for all his deeds, which, as he thinks, are underestimated:

I’ll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,

Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb–

For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too–

Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me.

For making him egregiously an ass

And practising upon his peace and quiet

Even to madness. (2.1.41)

The main plot line in the tragedy of the Moor of Venice is really twisted around a handkerchief which the moor Othello, a brave and popular warrior, gave to his newlywed wife Desdemona as a token of love. Desdemona, who was taken by the moor from her father’s house and was feeling rather awkward in her new position of a wife, made much of this present. Emilia gives clear evidence of this:

I am glad I have found this napkin:

This was her first remembrance from the Moor:

My wayward husband hath a hundred times

Woo’d me to steal it; but she so loves the token,

For he conjured her she should ever keep it,

That she reserves it evermore about her

To kiss and talk to. (3.3.69)

Emilia, who is the wife of Iago, the main villain, saw the dropped down handkerchief and brought it to her husband, who had always dreamt to get hold of this object. Iago elaborated the plan long ago: being rather a close person to Othello, he would show the handkerchief to him and make an attempt to belie Cassio for the moor:

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… (3.3.70)

The plan worked perfectly – Othello found his wife’s handkerchief in the personal belongings of Cassio and his suspicions turn into assurance of Desdemona’s betray. A tiny piece of silk outbalanced all the other evidence, and Othello preferred to believe his eyes and treacherous Iago rather than his wife’s words. Being obsessed by his suspicions and jealousy, Othello gave an order to murder Cassio, whom he considered to be his friend and the faithful lieutenant. The most difficult mission – to kill his wife Desdemona – he left for himself, and fulfilled it, suffering from the deep inner conflict between love and destructive jealousy. A little symbolic token, which had come into wrong hands, fastened the plot lines together.

The handkerchief here is a kind of an invisible rope, which has tied all the main characters of the play in a kind of perplexed cluster. However, the depth of symbolism of the handkerchief varies for different characters. For Othello, this object is, perhaps, the most meaningful and symbolically charged: in his view, the handkerchief has passed all the stages of degradation from the token of empyrean love to the emblem of the most knavish treachery.

First, the handkerchief is so meaningful to Othello because of the fact that this is the family heirloom, which should be twice precious for such a sentimental soldier as Othello is:

That handkerchief

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;

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. (3.4.79)

Second, the handkerchief is charged for Othello with powerful sexual symbolism: he gave it to his wife, which meant for him that, as long as she has it with her, she will consider herself his woman. In this respect, this fragment of textile works as both a kind of Othello’s personal brand-iron and a moral barrier of the marriage fidelity for Desdemona. So, the handkerchief in Cassio’s hands could mean for the moor nothing but the fall of those barriers, the destruction of magic sexual and moral ties established between him and his wife:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand.

O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,

And makest me call what I intend to do

A murder, which I thought a sacrifice:

I saw the handkerchief. (5.2.121)

Third, for a short period of time when Othello balances between the common sense and the total obsession with this fragment of fabric, the handkerchief acquires for him the symbolic semantics of something unwanted, of a Shadow that tortures his soul:

Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome. –Handkerchief–confessions–handkerchief!—To confess, and bу hanged for his labour;–first, to be hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. –Is’t possible?-Confess–handkerchief!–O devil! (4.1.87).

The last words – “handkerchief” and “devil” – are placed together not occasionally: it really seems that Othello wants to overcome this diabolic obsession imposed on him by the handkerchief. In this respect, this object becomes for Othello something like the Portrait for Dorian Gray – a disgusting possession, from which there is no way to escape.

Being a soldier and constantly having to attract Fortune, Othello is sure to be superstitious, to believe in various old wives stories, protecting amulets, lucky signs, and the like. No doubt that this attitude towards supernatural and transcendental spirits of luck he transposes into the sphere of such a complex category as love. Charging the material trifle with transcendental meaning absolutely spoils his view of the nature of love – he seems to really believe that Desdemona’s love is embodied in the handkerchief and attributes some magic powers to it:

‘Tis true: there’s magic in the web of it:

A sibyl, that had number’d in the world

The sun to course two hundred compasses,

In her prophetic fury sew’d the work;

The worms were hallow’d that did breed the silk;

And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful

Conserved of maidens’ hearts. (3.4.79)

Othello’s attempt to combine the ideal and material components in one unit creates for him the wrong perception of love and trust as key categories of human being. Moreover, the material part of this weird cluster – the handkerchief – seems to be dominating over the symbolic meaning attributed to it. At certain time, Othello seems to become really indifferent to Desdemona’s feelings and to the circumstance of her supposed betray – it is only the fact of handkerchief passing to Cassio that matters:

That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee

Thou gavest to Cassio. (5.2.120)

It looks like the moor does not care about any possible love affair featuring feelings and emotions between Desdemona and Cassio. The only thing he is fully concentrated on is the possibility of sexual intercourse between his wife and his lieutenant. At a certain moment, even this picture vanishes from his inner sight, fully eclipsed by the image of the handkerchief he loved so much.

The conflict is even more intensified because of the fact that Desdemona does not share Othello’s views on the symbolic character of the handkerchief. Being more sensitive, tender and less dependent upon lucky signs, she prefers to handle the categories of love, fidelity, faith, and trust in their authentic transcendental nature. That is why the symbolism of the handkerchief means less than nothing to her: though she “loves the token” and “reserves it evermore about her to kiss and talk to” (3.3 69). Desdemona does not connect it to her feelings towards Othello. The handkerchief is a pleasant present to her and not the object of constant watch, otherwise she would not have lost it. Furthermore, the idea of that special meaning attributed to the handkerchief by Othello annoys her:

Othello: Most veritable; therefore look to’t well.

Desdemona: Then would to God that I had never seen’t! (3.4.80)

However, Iago, also being a soldier and sharing the same superstitions and beliefs as Othello, can perfectly understand the logic of the moor and shares his idea about handkerchief’s symbolism. For Iago, though he was defined by S.T. Coleridge as “passionless character, all will in intellect,” the handkerchief is, no doubt, a symbol of passion – the passion he feels when teasing Othello (Coleridge 187). This wicked game of intellect somehow reminds of bullfight, and the handkerchief serves for matador Iago as muleta. Indeed, the villain tries to keep Othello’s thoughts constantly focused upon the handkerchief, thus legitimizing the moor’s obsession with it:

Iago: So they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip:

But if I give my wife a handkerchief,– (4.1.86)

Iago: Her honour is an essence that’s not seen;

They have it very oft that have it not:

But, for the handkerchief,– (4.1.86)

For Iago, this obsession is a kind of sentimental weakness he can use for fulfillment of his treacherous plan. He defines Othello as being too credulous. He gradually leads his will and mind to destruction and degradation, pressing the jealousy buttons and warming up the psychological complexes, which Othello turns out to have galore. The first and foremost is his doubt of his marriage legitimacy. In Act 1, he seems more than assured in himself and in Desdemona’s feelings towards him:

My services which I have done the signiory

Shall out-tongue his complaints. ‘Tis yet to know,–

Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,

I shall promulgate–I fetch my life and being

From men of royal siege, and my demerits

May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune

As this that I have reach’d: for know, Iago,

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,

I would not my unhoused free condition

Put into circumscription and confine

For the sea’s worth. (1.2.12)

She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,

And I loved her that she did pity them. (1.3.22)

However, Brabanzio’s protest seems to have infused a seed of doubt in the moor’s soul. This seed happened to fall on the fruitful ground of jealousy and credulity, and Iago tried to get as much of it as possible.

One aspect here needs a more clear explanation – how it happened that such respected, experienced and cold-blooded warrior as Othello could fall into suspiciousness and jealousy (even with Iago’s help) so much that he became a murderer. This degradation can also be explained in terms of handkerchief’s symbolism. Actually, this object is not mentioned in the play until Act 3, when Desdemona wants to use it to make a bandage for Othello’s aching head. And the person who mentions the importance of this token to the married couple is neither Othello nor Desdemona themselves but Emilia. It really seems that the handkerchief gains its real importance only in the course of the plot development.

So, it becomes obvious that symbolism imposed on the handkerchief by Othello in combination with his own deep psychological complexes and Iago’s treacherous behavior created the effect of deadly catastrophism for both Othello and Desdemona. Not possessing his own emotions evoked by the wrong treatment of his most valuable icon – the handkerchief and trapped by Iago’s treacherous rhetoric, the Moor of Venice makes his choice and sacrifices his marriage and the life of his wife to his psychological complexes, which he seems unable to overcome.

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