Of the many themes, motifs, and symbols in Shakespeare’s: Othello, one of the most important symbols is the handkerchief. The Handkerchief is special because it means something different to each of the characters. It symbolizes things of the past, present, and future. Why is this prop of the play so significant? Because of it’s irony of what it represents compared to what it is in the literal sense. It is essentially a piece of cloth that we blow our noses into, or wipe our faces with. I think it is important to ask the question: Is the handkerchief used by Shakespeare as one of the many symbols of love that drive us insane?
It is definitely a symbol of Othello’s love, as it is one of his most important possessions that he gives to Desdemona as a gift. We see Othello as a sensitive soul, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. This is symbolic of the the way the handkerchief is worn by Desdemona, tucked into the top of her dress, close to her heart, for everyone to see. In giving the handkerchief to Desdemona, because of the “magic in it’s webbing,” Othello sees it as a symbol of Desdemona’s chastity and loyalty towards him. What is interesting, and somewhat disturbing about the handkerchief is that the color of strawberries in the stitching on the white cloth resembles blood of a virgin on the white sheets during sex on a newlyweds wedding night. As soon as it goes missing, he goes ballistic and makes snap judgements about where it might be, or if she had given it to another man. Iago pushes him towards these judgements when he puts words in his mouth by saying Desdemona was caught with another man. He says “With her, on her, what you will.” which leaves a lot to the imagination, and as a result Othello immediately jumps to the worst case scenario. As we discussed, Iago’s speech is full of blanks that he leave for Othello to fill. Othello does his dirty work for him. Iago uses the handkerchief as a tool to ruin the love between Othello and Desdemona.
Besides the fact that it has a lot of value because it was a family heirloom of Othello’s, it represents love in the sense that we can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still there. When the handkerchief goes missing, and Othello goes crazy over it, it is only because he loves her so much, and the feeling of betrayal was too much for him to bear on top of all of the other responsibilities he has to deal with.
We know that Desdemona has been faithful, even if Othello is not entirely convinced yet, so we see her as a damsel in distress who has done nothing wrong. She loves him, and still loves him even when he is harsh. In act IV scene III, Emilia tries to console Desdemona, and she says she wishes she had never met Othello and that she was better off not being married to him. Desdemona’s reply is “so would not I. My love doth so approve him that even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns.” She is upset that the handkerchief is missing and it has her thinking that she has been a bad wife, even though she knows she has been loyal. She is worried that he will leave her, which is evident in the Willow Song. The Willow tree sits at the edge of water, its long branches leaning over and touching it with the tips of it’s branches. In a way, it is human like. Similar to someone hunched over and crying. Thats why they are called “weeping willows.” Desdemona is the willow tree. Shakespeare is smart, using this reference in Hamlet. Ophelia is left by her love, Hamlet, and drowns in a river after falling out of a willow tree. Both Ophelia and Desdemona fear that their husbands have gone mad because of the strong influences love has, and is afraid for them.
The handkerchief is a strong symbol of love, and despite the fact that it is literally and figuratively light, and minuscule, it holds a lot of weight emotionally. Shakespeare does an excellent job at portraying the magical elements of it, and how it is parallel to the craziness of love.