09 Oct 2011

Sample Essay: The Handkerchief: A "Napkin" of Many Meaning

The handkerchief plays an important role in Shakespeare’s play “Othello”. It is Othello’s first gift to Desdemona and hence it is much cherished by Desdemona as a token of his love (3.3.1). Iago with the intention of making Othello doubt his wife’s chastity plans to steal the handkerchief from Desdemona through his wife.  Iago is aware of the sentimental value of the handkerchief and its symbolic value to Othello who considers it to be a symbol of Desdemona’s fidelity.  He therefore uses it to manipulate Othello’s mind so much so that when Othello sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s possession he is totally convinced that Desdemona had been unfaithful to him. This shattering of his trust in Desdemona leads ultimately to the tragic deaths of Othello and Desdemona. The handkerchief holds the plot of the play together. Every character that comes to hold the handkerchief at some point is affected by its power. From this angle, the handkerchief may be seen as an instrument of fate – one that has the evil power to cause destruction to lovers.  Iago used it to carry out his diabolic plans but ultimately there is poetic justice in it when it finally becomes tangible proof of Iago’s guilt.  The handkerchief has a multifaceted role in the play “Othello”; it is a token of love, an indicator of character, a test of relationships, the key factor to the ending of the play and a symbol of major ideas in the play.

The handkerchief is white in color and has red strawberries hand stitched on them and Othello describes to Desdemona that they thread had been dyed with blood from “maidens’ hearts” (3.4.10). This shows that in the eyes of Othello, the handkerchief is symbolic of the white wedding sheet that is stained with a virgin’s blood.  As Othello’s gift to Desdemona, the handkerchief becomes a mark of her chastity and when Desdemona loses the handkerchief, Othello feels that she has lost her chastity.  The handkerchief also has historical meaning to Othello. He confides to Desdemona that the handkerchief was given by an Egyptian “charmer” to his mother in order to keep his father “faithful” and under her spell (3.4.9).  This endows the handkerchief with magical qualities and greater significance. By linking the handkerchief to the chastity of Desdemona, Othello interprets the loss of the handkerchief as conclusive proof of Desdemona’s adultery.

Iago plants strong suspicious in Othello’s mind about Desdemona and it is in this frame of mind that Othello goes for having dinner with Desdemona. Desdemona senses his tension and asks what is wrong. Othello responds that he has a headache at which Desdemona takes out her handkerchief to wrap around his head. Othello is irritated and remarks: “Your napkin is too little: / Let it alone. Come, I’ll go in with you” (3.3.287-288), and rushes out of the room, followed by Desdemona, during which period, the handkerchief drops down. Emilia, noticing the handkerchief falling, picks it up as she knows it is very precious to Desdemona. She knows its Othello’s first gift to Desdemona and that she always kept it with her “To kiss and talk to” (3.3.296). She also confesses: “My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Woo’d me to steal it” (3.3.292-293). Iago appears and she spontaneously tells him that she has found Desdemona’s handkerchief. Iago snatches it from her ignoring her protests and moves away with the handkerchief.

Talking aloud to himself, Iago says that he plans to drop the handkerchief in Cassio’s vicinity so that he would pick it up. When the handkerchief is in Cassio’s possession it would be easy for him to convince Othello that Desdemona has an affair with Cassio. Iago is sure the small napkin is weighty enough to be a proof of Desdemona’s adultery because “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.322-324). He later goes to Othello and reminds him of the handkerchief, adding that he saw Cassio wipe his beard with that very handkerchief. By this time, Othello has been blinded by jealousy due to Iago’s constant comments against Desdemona so much so he believes Iago’s blatant lies. Here the handkerchief exposes the weakness of mind of Othello who is easily swayed by jealousy and also brings to fore his basic insecurities.

Desdemona searches for the handkerchief and asks Emilia “Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?” (3.4.23). Emilia now lies to her that she does not know where it is though she knows that Iago has it.  Desdemona feels guilty about losing the handkerchief, but in her mind she thinks that Othello would not be base enough to judge her character based on the loss of the handkerchief. She is happy to think that “my noble Moor / Is true of mind and made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are,” because otherwise the loss of the handkerchief might be “enough / To put him to ill thinking” (3.2.26-29). This shows Desdemona’s trust in Othello.

However, Othello is already into ill thinking and he checks out Desdemona directly asking her for the handkerchief. When Desdemona reveals that she has lost it, Othello is furious He says that it was given to his mother by an Egyptian charmer with prophetic powers.  The handkerchief had magical powers and that “if she lost it / Or made gift of it, my father’s eye / Should hold her loathed” (3.4.60-62). Othello also says “‘Tis true: there’s magic in the web of it” (3.4.69).  He further reveals that the silk was taken from silk worms and “it was dyed in mummy which the skilful / Conserved of maidens’ hearts” (3.4.74-75). Desdemona becomes alarmed and says that she wishes she had never seen it: “Then would to God that I had never seen’t!” (3.4.77). This makes Othello very mad and he soon shouts at Desdemona asking her if she had lost the handkerchief or misplaced it. In fear, Desdemona lies and says “It is not lost; but what an if it were?” (3.4.83). This convinces Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio and this conviction makes him enter into a tempestuous exchange of words with Desdemona before he storms out of the room. Desdemona is shocked to see his behavior and wonders if there must be some magical powers in the handkerchief: “Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief: / I am most unhappy in the loss of it” (3.4.101-102).

Cassio who had picked up the handkerchief planted by Iago gives it to his prostitute girlfriend Bianca to copy it. She is filled with jealousy to see that handkerchief and loathes the sight of it. Cassio explains that he found the handkerchief in his chambers and that there is no need for Bianca to be jealous over it. Later Iago continues his evil work of poisoning Othello’s mind over the lost handkerchief of Desdemona: “So they do nothing, ’tis a venial slip; / But if I give my wife a handkerchief –“(4.1.9-10). He directs Othello’s thought process in a subtle manner. Iago pretends to be unaware of the significance of the handkerchief and remarks that Desdemona is free to give it to any man. Othello asks: “She is protectress of her honour too: / May she give that?” (4.1.14-15), to which Iago says that her honor cannot be seen but only through her handkerchief.  Iago brings the focus of Othello on the handkerchief repeatedly so that he would link it with Desdemona’s chastity, until finally the totally deluded Othello says: “Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome. — Handkerchief — confessions — handkerchief!” (4.1.35-38). Othello happens to see Bianca give back the handkerchief to Cassio with jealousy tinged words such as: “There; give it your hobby-horse: wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t” (4.1.154-155).  Iago uses the situation to poison Othello further – “Yours by this hand: and to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him, and he hath given it his whore” (4.1.175-177). Othello kills Cassio.

Othello wants to kill Desdemona and before killing her he accuses her of having an affair with Cassio: “That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee / Thou gavest to Cassio” (5.2.48-49). Desdemona denies this accusation, but Othello is in no mind to listen and kills her. Emilia realizes that Iago is behind everything and accuses him of lying. Othello talks to himself and reveals that he had seen in Cassio’s hands “a handkerchief, an antique token / My father gave my mother” (5.2.210-217). Emilia blurts out: “O thou dull [stupid] Moor! that handkerchief thou speak’st of / I found by fortune [chance] and did give my husband” (5.2.225-226). She adds, “For often, with a solemn earnestness, / More than indeed belong’d to such a trifle, / He begg’d of me to steal it” (5.2.227-229). Emilia calls the handkerchief “a trifle” thereby suggesting that it’s of small significance and nothing worth killing over. Iago kills his wife for telling the truth.  Othello later confronts Cassio directly about the handkerchief to which Cassio replies that he found it in his room and that it was planted there by Iago. Othello realizes that he has made a grave mistake of interpreting the presence of the handkerchief in Cassio’s hands as a sign of adultery and he kills himself.

Thus one finds that the handkerchief is used by Iago to corrupt the mind of Othello and tarnish the character of Desdemona. It reveals the deceptions of the characters in the play – Iago seems honest and isn’t. Othello does not seem jealous but is.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William (1886). Othello. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia

Place Your Order Now
Academic Writing Services:

Business / Professional Writing Services:

Free Essay Tips / Writing Guides:
100% Satisfaction Guarantee

We will revise your paper until you are completely satisfied. Moreover, you are free to request a different writer to rewrite your paper entirely, should you be unhappy with the writing style, level of research, communication, etc.

100% Authentic Research & Writing Guarantee

We guarantee that you will receive a fully authentic, 100% non-plagiarized work. Otherwise, we will just give you your money back.

100% Confidentiality & Privacy Guarantee

No one will ever find out that you have used our service. We guarantee that your personal information as well as any other data related to your order(s) will remain confidential to the extent allowed by law. It will not be shared with any third party unless you provide a written consent.