Q. In Othello, the handkerchief becomes of paramount importance. Discuss with reference to the object.
The handkerchief in Othello, a play written by Shakespeare in the early part of the 17th century, has an extremely significant role to play, in the sense that it brings about the actual change in Othello. He moves from asking for “ocular proof” to accepting circumstantial evidence, that is at best, hearsay.
The handkerchief is given to Desdemona by the Moor, who tells her that it has been woven by a two hundred year old sybil or female prophet using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. This was the first gift that Othello had given Desdemona ...view middle of the document...
In the 17th century, women were assigned the role of the homemaker. They stayed at home and looked after the children and worked on the house, taking care of the few animals that the family possessed. If a woman was employed, the highest position she could attain was that of a midwife and that too, if only sanctioned by a Bishop.
The domination of the fairer sex by the male sex can also be noticed in the way that Brabantio and Iago speak about Desdemona. The latter is spoken of, as if she were an object or a piece of property. Iago tells Brabantio “You are robbed”, while Brabantio brands Othello a “foul thief” and says of Desdemona- “She is… stolen from me and corrupted.”
Thus, it is the symbolism of the handkerchief and not the object itself that Iago chooses to use against Othello and Desdemona’s relationship. It exposes the fact that no matter how much Othello professes to love Desdemona, it is he who is socially superior to her and can choose to kill her in cold blood if he wishes to punish her for her supposed infidelity. The handkerchief thus becomes a token of the patriarchal society.
As Harold Bloom writes in Modern Critical Interpretations: Othello, jealousy in Shakespeare, is a mask for the fear of death, since what the jealous lover fears is that there will not be enough time or space left for himself. However, we cannot understand Othello’s jealousy without first understanding Iago’s envy for Othello, which is at the hidden centre of the drama. “I am not what I am” is what he continuously says of himself- a direct and darker opposite to God’s proclamation “I am that I am”, in reply to Moses.
The handkerchief’s colour comes from dyes made of the blood from the hearts of mummified virgins. This detail becomes particularly macabre sounding, because it hints at virgin sacrifices in order to ‘conserve’ their virginity. When the handkerchief gets lost, Othello assigns it a talismanic force and punishes Desdemona with death. This is only possible in a highly patriarchal society where a woman, aside from being treated like a second rate citizen, could only either be a whore or an angelic wife.
Paul Yachnin remarks, the...