The Handkerchief's Role in Othello College

Shakespeare weaves an intricate web ensnaring the characters in The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice. A handkerchief, a small and seemingly insignificant square of fabric, exerts magical powers over the characters as it transfers from person to person in the play. Six characters take possession of the handkerchief. Three (Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia) die violent deaths, one (Cassio) is gravely wounded, another (Bianca) is imprisoned for a murder she did not commit, and Iago—who used the handkerchief for his own evil machinations—faces the death penalty. When Iago says that “we work by wit and not by witchcraft,” he is not giving the handkerchief due credit for its abetment in his plots (2.3.393). The handkerchief, shrouded in mystery, is a character in its own right that takes the stage at pivotal moments.

The handkerchief makes rounds through the characters. We first see it when Desdemona offers to bind Othello’s head to ease the ache, but Othello, beguiled by Iago’s artifice, refuses the proffered tenderness. Emilia retrieves the dropped handkerchief with the intention of copying the work for Iago, but instead hands the original over to Iago even though she knows Desdemona will “run mad/ When she shall lack it”...

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