The play, Othello, is full of terrible ironies. At the heart of these ironies is the symbol of a handkerchief. The handkerchief is given by Othello to Desdemona. Othello tells her that the handkerchief was made by a sibyl and it was used by his mother to ensure marital fidelity (Shakespeare 98). Othello thus gives the handkerchief to Desdemona as a sign of love and marital fidelity. The handkerchief has some strawberry patterns. The patterns of strawberries are made in a way that suggests virginity. However due to manipulations and interference by Iago, the handkerchief which is a sign of true love becomes a sign of jealousy, insecurity and lack of fidelity. In the course of the play, Desdemona and the handkerchief retain their symbolism and they do not change despite the attempts by Iago to change them.
To start with, the handkerchief is a symbol of love and affection. It is a symbol of marital fidelity. The handkerchief is the initial gift that Othello give Desdemona and she really treasures it. It is the one that indicates the love that is there between the two. She does not leave it behind and in act three scene two, she says that she must be with it everywhere she goes ( Shakespeare 78). Apart from love and fidelity, the handkerchief also captures the virginity of Othello’s wife. It has a whitish background that is patterned with strawberry embroideries. The patterns were made using dye extracted after the mummification of the hearts of virgins. It is the symbol that adds sensuality to the union between Othello and Desdemona.
When Iago takes possession of the handkerchief, its symbolism changes. The handkerchief starts representing the lack of trust between Desdemona and Othello. The lack of trust starts when Othello decides to believe Iago’s story. Iago tells Othello that the handkerchief has been found in Casio’s room and he uses this evidence to accuse Desdemona of infidelity. The fact that the handkerchief has been found in the room of another man makes Othello lose trust is his life. It is the same handkerchief that used to be the symbol of love, fidelity and chastity that has turned out to be a symbol of betrayal, lack of trust and insecurity. It does not mean that Desdemona was unfaithful to Othello. The problem is that Othello was too quick to judge. He had not established how the handkerchief went there in the first place and was also unaware of Iago’s evil schemes.
It is very ironic that Othello decides to trust his nemesis who has decided to use the symbol of their love to destabilize their relationship. The fact that the husband quickly believes that Desdemona is cheating betrays his lack of trust. It is ironic that the symbol of their love becomes the symbol that kills their love. When Othello decides to believe that Desdemona is sleeping with Casio, the symbolism of the handkerchief changes from depicting love between Desdemona and Othello to depicting love between Casio and Desdemona which was not there in the first place. When the handkerchief gets lost, Desdemona is depressed. He hopes that Othello will understand because she trusts him but this does not happen. Othello is so insecure that he decides to use the least circumstantial evidence to pass a judgment on his wife. The handkerchief inevitably becomes a symbol of Desdemona’s infidelity when Iago manages to lay his hand on it. Iago manipulates the handkerchief, making it change its symbolism totally.
The handkerchief is also a symbol of fragility. This is because it keeps on changing what it represents. It starts as a symbol of love, trust and fidelity and ends up as a symbol of jealousy, mistrust and infidelity. It starts as a symbol of purity and ends up as a symbol of betrayal and evil. This fragility can also be seen from another perspective. The fragility created by this symbolism is that of the union between Othello and Desdemona. The symbolism also depicts their fragile love. The love between the two is not deep. If it was really deep, Othello would not have passed judgment on the character of Desdemona without the necessary proof. If the love was as deep a it seemed to be at the beginning, then Othello would have listened to his wife’s side of the story and cast doubt on what Iago had told him. However, he decides to trust Iago’s side of the story and not Desdemona’s side, exposing the shallowness of their love and marriage. The marriage is brought down by the disappearance of just an handkerchief and this demonstrates how fragile the union was (Hall 302).
The marriage is fragile because one party in the marriage is also fragile. Desdemona is a strong character and even the audience can attest that she is completely faithful to Othello, Iago has already noted that Othello has a weakness and he exploits this weakness to put him against his wife. This weakness is his fragility. Othello is not a strong character. He is not as strong as Desdemona and the fragility of his character is symbolized by the handkerchief. The fact that his love for Desdemona could disappear with the disappearance of a simple handkerchief is a sign of his fragility.
Finally, the handkerchief depicts the personality and the character of Othello’s wife. The handkerchief is white in color. White is a color of purity. Othello gave it to Desdemona because it symbolizes her, Desdemona was a virgin when they married meaning that she was pure and chaste. She was also very faithful to her husband and this faithfulness is symbolized by the handkerchief (Kass 90). The moment the handkerchief disappears, all these qualities that Desdemona had also disappear in the eyes of her husband, Othello. Without the handkerchief, Othello sees Desdemona as an unfaithful wife whom he accuses of infidelity. The purity of Desdemona in the eyes of Othello disappear with the disappearance of the handkerchief. When Iago misuses the handkerchief, he affects how Othello’s wife is perceived and changes Othello’s attitude towards her. When Iago steals it, he steals Othello’s love for Desdemona, he steals Desdemona’s fidelity and purity. He actually steals the entire construct of who Desdemona is and the ultimate result is the death of Desdemona. This means that the handkerchief was the symbol of the character called Desdemona.
In conclusion, the handkerchief is one of the key pieces of symbolism in this Shakespearean tragedy. Most of the themes and the character traits in the play are developed by this symbol. It is the symbol that leads to the traffic events at the end of the play that makes Othello to be one of the best Shakespearean tragedies.
Hall, Kim F., ed. “Symbolisms and motifs.” Othello, the Moor of Venice: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 300-305
Kass, Sarah. “The Trials of Othello.” Journal of Education 176.1 (1994): 85-101.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. Ed. Kim F. Hall. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.