What is the significance of the handkerchief as a symbol in Othello?

Expert Answers
jon0111 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The symbol of the handkerchief is at the heart of the play's terrible irony. Given is a gift of true, honest, faithful love by Othello to Desdemona, it ultimately becomes a sign of Othello's jealousy, mistrust, and insecurity. One cannot trace this change in the symbol's significance without appreciating Iago's continual manipulation of Othello. Both the handkerchief and Desdemona remain pure and unchanged, however Iago is able to change Othello's perception of them. One of Shakespeare's recurring themes is the power of perception--Othello is willing to commit the most horrible of crimes based not upon facts, but upon his faulty interpretation of reality.

The handkerchief is a symbol of everything Othello has. The plot of the play is about how insecurity can alter perception--even of the things we are sure of.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Iago succeeds in making Othello terribly jealous, but the Moor is suspicious of Iago's motives. In Act 3, Scene 3, he threatens Iago with death. For example: "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!" By a great coincidence, Iago gets possession of the precious handkerchief accidentally dropped by the innocent Desdemona and manages to pass it into Cassio's possession. Cassio gives it to Bianca, his mistress, and Iago, by various contrivances, manages to have Othello observe Cassio handling the handkerchief and joking about it and about Bianca. Othello mistakenly believes Cassio is joking about his lewd behavior with Desdemona. This is the only "oracular" proof Othello ever gets that Desdemona and Cassio are carrying on an affair. All this exaggerated valuation of a handkerchief and all the coincidences connected with it are very hard to swallow. They seem like a very contrived way of motivating Othello to murder the wife he adores. Somerset Maugham has the following to say about Othello's precious handkerchief in A Writer's Notebook:

"Shakespearian scholars would save themselves many a headache if when they come across something in the plays that is obviously unsatisfactory, instead of insisting against all reason that it is nothing of the kind, they admitted that here and there Shakespeare tripped. There is no reason that I can see to suppose that he was not well aware that the motivation in certain of the plays is so weak as to destroy the illusion....Why should he have put into Othello's mouth those lines beginning That handkerchief did an Egyptian to my mother give . . . unless it was because he was aware that the episode of the handkerchief was too thin to pass muster? I think it would save a lot of trouble to conclude that he tried to think of something better, and just couldn't."

Cassio's mistreatment of Bianca and his reputed philandering make us lose sympathy for him, and make us wonder what there is about him that makes Desdemona like him so much. His accidental possession of the handkerchief and his vulgar behavior with it are all far-fetched and only invented in order to give Iago a means of offering Othello the proof he demands in Act 3, Scene 3 in the most threatening terms.

Here is a film adaptation of a scene regarding the handkerchief:

eizusuzie | Student

The handkercheif was a token of love. Her mother was given it by her father, and so Desdemona gave it to Othello. It represented all their love - which was quite common back then. When he found it with Cassio it broke his heart, making him want to kill both her and Cassio.

stuey | Student

in addition to all the above answers the handkerchei symbolizes as object correlative as it is passed from character to character in the play

lostinmymind | Student

In this case it ends up showing Desdemona's innocence. Although at first it is seen as proof that Desdemona is cheating by Othello who finds it in her room. The reader sees that Desdemona is innocent because Iago was really the one who planted it in her room. And why would he need to put something there if there was already proof?

This handkercheif also symbolises the most distinct use of irony in the play. This object that was meant to prove Desdemona's disloyalty actually showed how innocent she was.

natasha007a | Student

It signifies Othello's love for Desdemona.

It was given to Othello's mother by his father and was therefore a treasured family heirloom.


sbpssps | Student

the handkerchief in the play is almost like a character in itself, imbued with layers of significance. Othello tells Desdemona of its mystical origins.. it was sewed by a sibyl in "prophetic fury"... it was made from mummified silkworms... and handed over to Othello's mother by his father. when one reads about the origin of the kerchief, the racial "otherness" of Othello seems enhanced. Shakespeare cleverly portrays him in accordance with the western notion of the mystic oriental. this only adds to highlight othello's racial otherness, of which he has become an irrevocable victim. this is the first thing that strikes the reader.

what then draws our attention, is the function performed by the kerchief- that of keeping the husband unflinchingly in love with his wife. but as Othello gives it 2 Desdemona, its significance gets reversed, n it becomes a symbol of female chastity, not male fidelity. hence, the loss of it, and its resurfacing from a whore's (Bianca) possession seems to signify (for othello), Desdemona's moral decadence and depravity.

it is noteworthy how the kerchief travels thruogh 3 echelons of Venetian society- nobility (desdemona), militia (emilia) and the whore-house (bianca).

when at last the kerchief is restored, and the truth of its disappearance is revealed, the kerchief fulfills its former role. it restores othello's love for desdemona. miraculously, she is again hailed as being virtuous and chaste. shakespeare very cleverly uses such a trivial thing as a handkerchief, as a mark of matrimonial trust. it shows that the ties of matrimony r as delicate as d kerchief itself, and can be lost easily.

more importantly, it is but ironic that d keeper of d kerchief has to be the wife, not d husband. thus, it is the woman who is the site and symbol of patriarchal ideology. it is she, on whom the onus lies for the preservation of marital relations. it is notewothy how easily desdemona is pronounced guilty of cuckolding othello, whereas it was he who got readily manipulated by the crafty Iago. but desdemona bears the brunt.

mantis | Student

The handkerchief was a family heirloom of Othello's which he treasured dearly. When Othello hears (from the manipulator Iago) of Cassio wearing his beloved handkerchief, he is told by Iago that it was Desdemona herself who gave it to him. Othello believes the handkerchief to be a symbol of their marriage and due to the fact that she has given it to another man, he believes Desdemona has given herself to another man: "That handkerchief which i so loved and gave to thee, thou gav'st to Cassio."

The red strawberries upon the handkerchief can also be seen as a representation of the jealousy and rage which enveolpes Othello when he hears who's the new owner of the kerchief. If he can't have Desdemona, nobody can.

The handkerchief is also very similar to the bloody glove in the OJ Simpson case though in these instances they convinced people of the wrong conclusions. The bloody glove was substantial evidence against OJ though when used incorrectly in the court room, it became a metaphor of innocence. The handkerchief was meant to represent love and commitment, though it became a metaphor of guilt. The handkerchief is enough evidence for Othello to issue Desdemona a death sentence, which he himself follows throughs with.

lit24 | Student

Othello tells Desdemona that the handkerchief was woven by a 200 year old sibyl  and that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her. So for Othello, the handkerchief symbolises marital fidelity. The pattern of strawberries on the kerchief have been printed with the dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins and so it's  obliquely suggestive of a guarantee of virginity.Act III Sc.4

Since the kerchief is Othello's first gift to Desedemona she treasures it as a symbol of his love to her and always has it with her,"to kiss and talk to." Act III sc.3.

Iago manipulates the kerchief in such a way that it  represents for Othello, Desdemona herself-her chastity and fidelity- and finally by taking possession of it he is able to convert it into evidence of her infidelity[Othello:"handkerchief-confessions-handkerchief!" ActIV sc,1; Othello:"I  saw my handkerchief in his(Cassio's) hand."Act V sc.2] which results in her tragic death.