The Symbolic Role of Handkerchief in Othello

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About this sample


Words: 552 |

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3 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

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Words: 552|Page: 1|3 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Essay grade:
arrow downward Read Review

Shakespeare weaves an intricate web ensnaring the characters in The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice. A handkerchief, a small and seemingly insignificant square of fabric, exerts magical powers over the characters as it transfers from person to person in the play. Six characters take possession of the handkerchief. Three (Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia) die violent deaths, one (Cassio) is gravely wounded, another (Bianca) is imprisoned for a murder she did not commit, and Iago—who used the handkerchief for his own evil machinations—faces the death penalty. When Iago says that “we work by wit and not by witchcraft,” he is not giving the handkerchief due credit for its abetment in his plots (2.3.393). The handkerchief, shrouded in mystery, is a character in its own right that takes the stage at pivotal moments.

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The handkerchief makes rounds through the characters. We first see it when Desdemona offers to bind Othello’s head to ease the ache, but Othello, beguiled by Iago’s artifice, refuses the proffered tenderness. Emilia retrieves the dropped handkerchief with the intention of copying the work for Iago, but instead hands the original over to Iago even though she knows Desdemona will “run mad/ When she shall lack it” (3.3.365-366). Iago leaves the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodgings where Cassio finds it and asks his lover to copy the work before he searches for the rightful owner. Bianca, incredulous that Cassio would ask her to take out the work of what she believes to be “some minx’s token,” returns the handkerchief to Cassio, while Othello looks on from the shadows.

The handkerchief works its magic on each of these characters in its own way. Emilia feigns ignorance of the handkerchief’s deposition and her husband’s contrivance. Emilia’s lack of interjection in 3.4 contradicts her vigorous championing of her lady in 5.2 that belies not necessarily malice toward Desdemona, but a wicked spell cast by the handkerchief that keeps Emilia from putting a stop to the misunderstanding when presented with the opportunity. Iago has an inclination of revenge toward Othello and Cassio, but it is not until the handkerchief finds its way to him that this plan starts to form. Even though the cloth is a “trifles light as air,” Iago realizes the power held within and puts it in Cassio’s bedchamber with the hope that, “This may do something” (3.3.370, 372). Cassio is taken in by the handkerchief’s charm, but it leaves him unmoved. Its effect on Bianca, on the other hand, is more apparent. At first Bianca is complacent to “be circumstanced” by Cassio’s terms, but after taking hold of the handkerchief, her eyes are opened and she seems prepared to present Cassio with an ultimatum. When Bianca returns the handkerchief to Cassio, Othello observes the handoff. Seeing the handkerchief in Cassio’s hands provides the “ocular proof” Othello demands in 3.3.412. A simple square of cloth holds enough weight to condemn Desdemona to death.

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The handkerchief’s provenance is obscure. Othello claims that “It was a handkerchief, an antique token/ My father gave my mother” in the last act (5.2.256-257), but it appears to be more of a magical article in the guise of an ordinary object. As the handkerchief makes its way from character to character, it leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.

Works Cited

  1. Bamber, L. (2015). The Handkerchief in Shakespeare's Othello: Cultural and Material Significance. Early Theatre, 18(1), 35-51.
  2. Berry, E. (2009). The Handkerchief Motif in Othello. Notes and Queries, 56(4), 522-524.
  3. Farnham, W. T. (2014). The Handkerchief—What Does It Symbolize in Othello? In The Argument of Comedy (pp. 225-228). Routledge.
  4. Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E., & Maus, K. E. (2016). The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition (3rd ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
  5. Jowett, J. (Ed.). (2000). Othello (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series). Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare.
  6. Neely, C. T. (1999). Broken Harmony: Shakespeare and the Politics of Music. University of Chicago Press.
  7. Prosser, E. S. (2000). Reading Othello: The Rhetoric of Characterization and the Idea of Language. University of Massachusetts Press.
  8. Shakespeare, W. (2009). Othello. In The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition (3rd ed., pp. 1185-1258). W. W. Norton & Company.
  9. Smith, J. C. (2012). The Handkerchief in Othello: An Instrument of Deception. Comparative Drama, 46(3), 329-353.
  10. Thomas, K. (2013). Shakespeare's Handkerchiefs: The Symbolism of Absence, Presence, and Loss. Critical Survey, 25(3), 25-38.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson
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Expert Review
This essay on the symbolic role of the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello is well-written and engaging, but it could be improved with a clearer focus and more developed arguments. The author begins with a strong thesis statement and provides several examples from the play to support the importance of the handkerchief, but the essay lacks a clear structure and overall organization. Additionally, the author could benefit from varying sentence structure and using more advanced vocabulary to improve the voice of the essay. Overall, the essay shows promise, but it could use some refinement.
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What can be improved
The author of this essay on the handkerchief in Othello presents a clear thesis statement in the opening paragraph and uses examples from the play to support the idea that the handkerchief exerts a powerful influence over the characters. However, the essay would benefit from more clearly structured arguments and a more focused approach. For example, the author mentions six characters who come into possession of the handkerchief, but does not clearly explain how each character’s experience with the handkerchief contributes to the overall theme of the play. The essay could benefit from more developed arguments and analysis of each character’s relationship to the handkerchief, as well as how this contributes to the play’s larger themes. In terms of sentence structure and vocabulary, the essay is well-written, but could benefit from more variety to improve the overall voice. The author frequently uses the same sentence structure and relies on simple vocabulary, which can make the essay feel repetitive and less engaging. By using more advanced vocabulary and varying sentence structure, the author could improve the overall quality of the essay. Overall, this essay shows promise but would benefit from a more focused approach and more developed arguments. Additionally, the author could improve the voice of the essay by using more advanced vocabulary and varying sentence structure.

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The Symbolic Role of Handkerchief in Othello. (2018, Jun 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“The Symbolic Role of Handkerchief in Othello.” GradesFixer, 10 Jun. 2018,
The Symbolic Role of Handkerchief in Othello. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
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