Not unlike his sinister antagonist, Iago, William Shakespeare is a master at bending the perception of his audience. His frequent use of disguise and wordplay, as well as his tendency to withhold key scenes, routinely forces us to decide whether our perceptions match what is truly happening. In Twelfth Night, we are asked to sort through the confusion created by Viola and Sebastian’s disguised identities as well as the trick played on Malvolio. In Much Ado about Nothing, we are asked to determine whether Claudio’s perceptions of “Hero’s” midnight fling are justified, despite the fact that the scene does not actually appear in the script. Similarly, in Othello, we are trying to stay ahead of Iago who works tirelessly to blur our perceptions of Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio. However, unlike Othello, who must rely on his limited knowledge of Iago’s character, we have the benefit of perspective, both in terms of what is actually happening in the play and the symbolism that accompanies this action. We can see all of Iago’s dirty dealings, including his falsified evidence in response to Othello’s demand for “ocular proof” (3.3.365). However, we also know that the purloined handkerchief, a seemingly unimportant square of cloth, will be sufficient to push Othello into irrational jealousy based on what this handkerchief stands for! Yes, we realize its connection to Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, not only because of the back story that Othello give us in Act Three, Scene Four, but also because of our own cultural awareness of the handkerchief as a chivalric love token. It is a physical sign of Desdemona’s loyalty and honor. In keeping with the connection between clothes and identity, one can take this even a step farther and suggest that the handkerchief is a symbolic representation of Desdemona herself! Therefore, the loss of this handkerchief indicates the loss of Desdemona and Othello’s marriage!!!
But, have we ever stopped to ask what this highly important prop actually looks like?
While Shakespeare give us ample description of the handkerchief’s supernatural qualities (Othello tells us “[t]here’s magic in the web of it,” and that it has the ability to charm whomever it is gifted to, tying their affections to the giver (3.4.54ff)), he leaves its physical attributes largely undefined. The only thing we know for sure is that it is “[s]potted with strawberries” (3.3.440). Such vagueness leaves ample room for some creative theatrical productions. For instance, in his film production of Othello (starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh), Oliver Parker has chosen to portray the handkerchief as white with little red strawberries. This is a particularly evocative depiction, hinting perhaps at Desdemona and Othello’s consummated wedding sheets (which also appear in the play), and/or the impending stain on Desdemona’s chastity (symbolized by the red on white).
According to Ian Smith, a professor at Lafayette College, this is also the most common critical interpretation of the handkerchief. However, in an article entitled “Othello’s Black Handkerchief,” Smith challenges us to defend this interpretation. Why must the handkerchief be white? And, why must it so closely linked with Desdemona’s body? Smith points out that there is just as much textual evidence to indicate that the handkerchief is actually a representation of Othello’s body. Not only, he argues, does the handkerchief linked more closely to Othello’s heritage than Desdemona’s, Othello himself suggests that the handkerchief is dyed. “It was dyed in mummy,” Othello tells Desdemona (see 3.4.72). Smith notes that mummy, or the fluid found in mummified bodies, would have been black, connecting the handkerchief to Othello’s ethnicity. Smith states, “This arresting color is a graphic reminder of the handkerchief’s function as a visible metonym for Othello, the portable object that Desdemona carries around as a constant reminder of her black African love” (Smith 20). If this is so, then the loss of the handkerchief is the loss of Othello himself. This interpretation has intriguing resonance for the action in the play, as it is only after Othello learns that the handkerchief is no longer in Desdemona’s possession that he loses all ability to connect with others, becoming fully dependent on Iago to guide his perception.
Yet, apart from its possible consequences for the play, Smith argues that this reinterpretation of the handkerchief should also make us question our own perspective as audience members. If we really are so supposedly privileged (i.e. in the know), how could we overlook the color of the handkerchief? Smith suggests that is in part due to “the habits and intellectual reflexes that inform our critical imagination” (25). As Western readers, we are trained to think of the handkerchief as love-tokens, connecting them more closely with women than men.Furthermore, we associate whiteness with purity, a virtue that Desdemona is reputed to have. By leaving the physical color of the handkerchief largely undefined, Shakespeare has pulled an Iago, forcing the audience (or the director) to fill in the blank as we will. However, as Smith points out, we will learn far more by questioning these conclusions rather than reveling in our all-knowing status as the audience.
Smith, Ian. “Othello’s Black Handkerchief.” Shakespeare Quarterly 64.1: 1-25. Project Muse. Web. 19 Oct. 2014