Please explain the role of the handkerchief in Othello?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The handkerchief belongs to Desdemona. It was a gift from her husband, Othello. Iago uses the handkerchief to convince Othello that his wife is unfaithful. When Desdemona uses this special gift from her husband to wipe his brow, he shoves it away in frustration. Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting, picks up the handkerchief from the floor and gives it to her husband. In a conversation with Othello, Iago suggests that his wife may be prone to infidelity. Then, he tells Othello that he saw Cassio with Desdemona’s handkerchief. Othello foolishly believes him, especially since Desdemona has been begging him to forgive Cassio and reinstate him to his post. Fully convinced of his wife’s infidelity, Othello kills her. When Emilia informs him that he is mistaken, Iago kills her. The handkerchief, then, began as a gift and symbol of love between Othello and Desdemona. Later, the handkerchief becomes the foundation for Othello’s overwhelming jealousy and rage. The final consequence is death for several major characters.


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Iago has been trying to make Othello suspect Desdemona of having an affair with Cassio. Othello is becoming jealous, but does not trust Iago entirely. In one significant speech in Act 3, Scene 3 he tells Iago:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!

Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof;

Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,

Thou hadst been better have been born a dog

Than answer my waked wrath!

Desdemona has accidentally lost a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries which Othello gave her as a wedding present. Emilia found it, but it Act 3, Scene 3, Iago gets his wife to give him the handkerchief instead of returning it to her mistress. Iago needs "ocular proof" or he is in extreme danger. He manages to have Cassio find it in his lodging. Cassio gives it to his mistress Bianca, a woman of easy virtue, asking her to make him a copy of it. She becomes angry at his neglect and contempt and angrily returns the handkerchief to Cassio in Act 4, Scene 1, accusing him of getting it from another woman. But Iago has contrived to be present with Othello, who is maddened by the belief that Cassio got it from Desdemona and is now treating it with such disdain.

In Act 3, Scene 4, Othello, who has already been told by Iago that Cassio has his handkerchief, asks Desdemona to let him use it. She does not want to admit that she lost it because she knows it meant a great deal to him, and she is hoping to find it. In this scene Othello explains why he places such value on that one handkerchief.

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 a gift of it, my father's eye

Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt

After new fancies.

So Iago needs ocular proof. Desdemona loses her handkerchief. Emilia finds it. Iago gets it from his wife and causes Cassio to find it. Cassio gives it to Bianca. Bianca angrily returns it to Cassio, but Othello sees this happen and also overhears Cassio joking about his relationship with Bianca--but thinks he is joking about his relationship with his own wife Desdemona. Convinced by this that Desdemona is unfaithful to him, Othello strangles her.


That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee

Thou gav'st to Cassio.


No, by my life and soul!

Send for the man and ask him.

Too late, Othello learns the truth from Emilia.

O thou dull Moor, that handkerchief thou speak'st of

I found by fortune, and did give my husband;

For often with a solemn earnestness--

More than indeed belonged to such a trifle--

He begged of me to steal't.

(Act 5, Scene 2)

Some critics have suggested that this is a weakness in the plot because the little handkerchief is flimsy evidence that Desdemona is unfaithful and also because of the grossly fortuitous way in which it was passed from hand to hand. We feel very sorry for Desdemona, but we do not feel sorry for Othello because he looks like a fool.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial