The Motif of The Handkerchief in Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

We see the handkerchief before we hear about it. After Iago has planted strong suspicions in Othello's mind, Desdemona appears to call Othello to dinner. He is so choked up that Desdemona can barely hear him speak. She asks what's wrong, and he makes the excuse that he has a headache. Desdemona knows what to do about that; she takes out her handkerchief to wrap around his head. Impatiently, Othello says, "Your napkin is too little: / Let it alone. Come, I'll go in with you" (3.3.287-288), and rushes out of the room, followed by Desdemona. It is not clear just what Othello's "Let it alone" refers to -- his head or the handkerchief, but at this point editors usually insert the stage direction, "He puts the handkerchief from him, and it drops " (3.3.288, s.d.). In other words, Othello sees and touches the handkerchief, but ten minutes later in the scene, Iago will tell him that Cassio has the handkerchief, and Othello won't remember seeing or touching it.

Emilia sees the handkerchief fall and stays to pick it up. She's glad she's found it because it's precious to Desdemona and because, as she says, "My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Woo'd me to steal it" (3.3.292-293). (You probably shouldn't ask yourself when Iago asked Emilia to steal the handkerchief. He could have done it during the sea voyage from Venice to Cyprus, but that would mean he had his whole plan mapped out before he arrived in Cyprus, which doesn't seem to be true.) Emilia knows that the handkerchief was Othello's first gift to Desdemona, and that she always keeps it with her, "To kiss and talk to" (3.3.296). Perhaps this is the reason that Emilia hasn't stolen the handkerchief, and even now she means to give it back to Desdemona. Emilia says she will "have the work ta'en out, / And give't Iago" (3.3.296-297). She means that she will have handkerchief copied and give the copy to Iago, even though she has no idea what he wants with it.

However, Emilia doesn't have a chance to carry out her plan. Iago appears and Emilia hopes to please him by telling him about what she has just found. She says, "I have a thing for you" (3.3.301). Iago replies with a nasty joke, but Emilia still wants to please him, and she tells him that she has found Desdemona's handkerchief. Iago immediately tells her to give it to him, and when she asks what he wants with it, he snatches it from her. She protests, "If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give't me again: poor lady, she'll run mad / When she shall lack it" (3.3.316-318). But Iago doesn't give it back. He tells Emilia to keep her mouth shut about it and he sends her away.

Alone for a moment, Iago tells us what he wouldn't tell Emilia. He's going to drop the handkerchief in Cassio's lodging where Cassio will be sure to find it. Iago knows that the fact that Cassio has the handkerchief won't be any kind of real proof that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, but he is pretty sure that it will be proof enough for Othello, because "Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ" (3.3.322-324).

A little later in the scene, Othello demands proof of Desdemona's disloyalty, and Iago's final so-called "proof" is the handkerchief. He asks Othello, "Tell me but this, / Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief / Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?" (3.3.433-435). Othello says that it was his first gift to Desdemona, and Iago replies that he didn't know that (which is a lie), but earlier in the day he saw Cassio wipe his beard with that very handkerchief. Of course we know that Cassio has never had that handkerchief, and that Iago now has it in his pocket, and that Othello should remember that Desdemona tried to bind his head with it, but Othello is so blinded by jealousy that he accepts Iago's lie as the strongest possible evidence. [Scene Summary]

After Desdemona sends a servant to summon Cassio, Desdemona asks, "Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?" (3.4.23). The modern phrase for "Where should I lose" is "where could I have lost." As Emilia mentioned in the previous scene, Desdemona always keeps that special handkerchief with her, and so she's puzzled that she can't remember where she left it.

Emilia says that she doesn't know where the handkerchief is. This is a lie. Emilia knows that Iago has the handkerchief, but she probably assumes that Iago will eventually return it. We know that the handkerchief is evidence in Iago's case against Desdemona, but the women know nothing about that, and Emilia doesn't mean any harm to Desdemona.

Desdemona also feels a little guilt about losing the handkerchief and is glad that "my noble Moor / Is true of mind and made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are," because otherwise the loss of the handkerchief might be "enough / To put him to ill thinking" (3.2.26-29)

Othello, however, is already deep into ill thinking, and when he arrives on the scene he sets a trap for his wife, saying, "I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me; / Lend me thy handkerchief." (3.4.51-52). She offers him a handkerchief, but he asks for the one he gave her. When she tells him that she doesn't have it with her, he tells her why it should never be lost. It was given to Othello's mother by an Egyptian who was "a charmer, and could almost read / The thoughts of people" (3.4.57-58). Egyptians -- like the gypsies who were thought to be descended from them -- had the reputation of being able to cast charms and foretell the future, and this one told Othello's mother that the handkerchief had a special magic. As long as Othello's mother kept it, she would keep the love of her husband, but that "if she lost it / Or made gift of it, my father's eye / Should hold her loathed" (3.4.60-62). When she was dying, Othello's mother gave him the handkerchief and told him to give it to his wife when he married. Therefore, Othello warns Desdemona, "To lose't or give't away were such perdition [loss, damnation] / As nothing else could match" (3.4.67-68).

We know that the handkerchief is precious to Desdemona, but its history is news to her, and she exclaims, "Is't possible?" (3.4.68), to which Othello answers, "'Tis true: there's magic in the web [weave, fabric] of it" (3.4.69). He then tells her that its decorations were sewn by a two-hundred-year-old prophetess, that its silk came from blessed silk worms, and that "it was dyed in mummy which the skilful / Conserved of maidens' hearts" (3.4.74-75). "Mummy" is fluid drawn from embalmed bodies, and to "conserve" something is make a special mixture which will last a long time. (That's why jams and jellies are sometimes called "conserves.")

All of this information, especially the gruesome part about "maidens' hearts," has an ominous tone, and Desdemona understands that she could earn his hate by losing the handkerchief. Alarmed, she blurts out, "Then would to God that I had never seen't!" (3.4.77). Othello jumps on this, with "Ha! wherefore?" (3.4.78). He is asking why she wishes she had never seen the handkerchief, but in such a way that it's more an accusation than a question. Desdemona asks, "Why do you speak so startingly and rash?" (3.4.79). ("Startingly" is a form of the word "start," in the sense of moving suddenly and involuntarily, as when a person is startled by a loud noise.) Othello has lost almost all of his self-control and barks out his words as he asks her if she has lost the handkerchief, if it's gone, if it's misplaced.

Reacting to the intense pressure Othello is putting on her, Desdemona lies. She says, "It is not lost; but what an if it were?" (3.4.83). It's not a big lie. After all, she had it with her earlier, and she's probably thinking that the handkerchief must be around the house somewhere, but it is a lie. Othello knows it is a lie, and therefore believes that he has the final proof that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. After this, their conversation turns into a one-sided shouting match. He demands that she find the handkerchief and show it to him. She tells him that he's just trying to avoid the subject of her request to have Cassio restored to his position. Of course, hearing about Cassio again only further enrages Othello, but Desdemona can't know that, since everything went so well during their previous talk about Cassio.

Three times Desdemona tries to talk about Cassio, and three times Othello shouts "The handkerchief!" (3.4.92), until Desdemona makes a stand and tells him that this argument is his fault. She says, "I' faith, you are to blame" (3.4.97). The idea that he is the one to blame is too much for Othello, and with an oath, he turns and storms out of the room. Emilia thinks he must be jealous, but Desdemona says that she's never seen him like this before, and seems to believe that perhaps the handkerchief is indeed magical. She says, "Sure, there's some wonder in this handkerchief: / I am most unhappy in the loss of it" (3.4.101-102).

A little later in the scene Cassio asks his prostitute girlfriend Bianca to copy a handkerchief which is -- unknown to him -- Desdemona's. Bianca is already unhappy with Cassio because he hasn't been to see her in a week, and the sight of a woman's handkerchief gives her an attack of jealousy. She teases Cassio that the handkerchief "is some token from a newer friend: / To the felt absence now I feel a cause: / Is't come to this? Well, well" (3.4.181-183). Cassio is offended by her jealousy and explains that he found the handkerchief in his chambers. (Earlier Iago told us he was going to plant it there, so that Cassio would find it, and that has happened.) Bianca copes with her jealousy, takes the handkerchief and wants to talk about when she'll see Cassio again. [Scene Summary]

At the opening of the first scene of Act Four, Iago is torturing Othello by suggesting that it will be very hard to prove that Desdemona has done anything wrong. Is it possible, Iago asks, that she just gave Cassio an innocent kiss? Or could it be that she was just "naked with her friend in bed / An hour or more, not meaning any harm?" (4.1.3-4). Next Iago leads Othello's thoughts to the handkerchief: "So they do nothing, 'tis a venial slip; / But if I give my wife a handkerchief --"(4.1.9-10). So, if Othello is thinking as Iago wants him to think, Othello is thinking that even if he caught Desdemona naked in bed with Cassio, that wouldn't prove anything. But, on the other hand, if Othello has given her a handkerchief, and . . .  "What then?" (4.1.11) Othello asks. But of course Iago does not give him a direct answer; Othello must make his own inferences.

Pretending to not know the significance of the handkerchief, Iago remarks that if it's her handkerchief, she may give to any man. Othello says, "She is protectress of her honour too: / May she give that?" (4.1.14-15), and Iago replies that her honor is an "essence that's not seen;" (4.1.16), "But, for the handkerchief --" (4.1.18). Iago wants Othello to focus on the handkerchief; Othello hasn't seen Desdemona kiss Cassio, won't seen her naked in bed with Cassio, can't see the unseen essence of her honor, but the handkerchief is something which can be seen. And so Othello is forced to remember the handkerchief. He says, "By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it. / Thou said'st (O, it comes o'er my memory, / As doth the raven o'er the infected house, / Boding to all) he had my handkerchief" (4.1.19-22).

Iago continues to makes hints and insinuations until Othello's head is spinning. Othello spews out his confusion, saying:

Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! that's fulsome. -- Handkerchief -- confessions -- handkerchief! -- To confess, and be hanged for his labour; -- first, to be hanged, and then to confess. -- I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. -- Is't possible? -- Confess -- handkerchief! -- O devil!   (4.1.35-43)
Then he falls in a trance. Among all of his other confusions, Othello seems to link the handkerchief with the idea of a confession, perhaps because the handkerchief is a kind of proof, but not a confession.

Later in the scene, when Iago has arranged it so that Othello overhears Cassio talking about Bianca and thinks he is talking about Desdemona, Iago has a bit of luck. Bianca herself shows up and she has the handkerchief with her. She has decided that she was a fool to agree to copy the handkerchief, and a fool to accept Cassio's story that he found it in his room. She now throws it back at him, tells him that he should give it to the whore he got it from, and declares that no matter where he got it, she's not about to copy it. She says, "There; give it your hobby-horse: wheresoever you had it, I'll take out no work on't" (4.1.154-155). Then Bianca storms out, followed by Cassio.

As soon as Cassio is gone, Othello emerges from hiding, asking "How shall I murder him, Iago?" (4.1.170). Iago feeds the fire of Othello's rage by asking if he saw how Cassio laughed and if he saw the handkerchief. Othello did, and asks if it was his handkerchief. Iago's answer suggests that the precious, magical handkerchief, Othello's love-gift to Desdemona, is worthless: "Yours by this hand: and to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! she gave it him, and he hath given it his whore" (4.1.175-177). At this, Othello says again that he will kill Cassio, and in a few minutes decides on the time, place, and method of murdering Desdemona. [Scene Summary]

Before he kills her, Othello accuses Desdemona of having an affair with Cassio and says, "That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee / Thou gavest to Cassio" (5.2.48-49). She vehemently denies it, and says, "I never did / Offend you in my life; never loved Cassio / But with such general warranty of heaven / As I might love: I never gave him token" (5.2.58-61). (She calls the handkerchief "token" because such a gift, like a card or flowers, can only be a memento of love.) Desdemona's denial only convinces Othello that Desdemona is lying because, as he says, "By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in's hand" (5.2.62). Desdemona guesses the truth, says Cassio must have found the handkerchief, and asks Othello to send for him, so that he can tell what he knows. But Othello tells her that Cassio is dead, and then he kills her.

Later in the scene it dawns on Emilia that her husband is behind everything. She accuses Iago of lying and defies him when he orders her to go home. This raises doubt in Othello's mind, but he continues to try to justify himself and says of Desdemona's death:

'Tis pitiful; but yet Iago knows
That she with Cassio hath the act of shame
A thousand times committed; Cassio confess'd it:
And she did gratify
[reward] his amorous works
With that recognizance and pledge of love
Which I first gave her; I saw it in his hand:
It was a handkerchief, an antique token
My father gave my mother.   (5.2.210-217)
(If you're paying very close attention, you may notice that whereas Othello earlier said that an "Egyptian" gave the handkerchief to Othello's mother, he now says that his father gave it to his mother. This difference is almost certainly not significant. Shakespeare worked very fast and, though his characters are consistent, he's sometimes a bit careless with facts.)

Notice that Othello's jealous imaginings have made an addition to the story of the handkerchief. He not only believes that Desdemona gave it to Cassio as a love-token, but he also believes that she gave it because Cassio was so good in bed. However, as soon as the handkerchief is mentioned, Emilia blurts out the truth: "O thou dull [stupid] Moor! that handkerchief thou speak'st of / I found by fortune [chance] and did give my husband" (5.2.225-226). She adds, "For often, with a solemn earnestness, / More than indeed belong'd to such a trifle, / He begg'd of me to steal it" (5.2.227-229). By calling the handkerchief a "trifle," Emilia suggests that it's something that's not worth killing over, no matter what.

The last mention of the handkerchief comes later in this scene. Iago kills his wife for telling the truth, runs away, and is captured. Lodovico, who has taken charge of the situation, shows Othello letters by Roderigo which prove Iago's guilt, and Othello asks one last time about the handkerchief. He says, "How came you, Cassio, by that handkerchief / That was my wife's?" (5.2.319-320). Cassio tells the truth, that he found it in his room, and he adds that Iago has confessed that he dropped it where Cassio was sure to find it. At this, Othello exclaims, "O fool! fool! fool!" (5.2.323). He must be talking about himself. [Scene Summary]