Othello

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The Handkerchief Symbol Analysis

The Handkerchief Symbol Icon
In European medieval and renaissance love poetry, the handkerchief is typically a symbol for a woman's romantic favor. For instance, there was a particular ritual in which a lady would drop her handkerchief for a knight to pick up and keep as a token of her regard. The handkerchief that Othello gives Desdemona is, similarly, a love-token and therefore a symbol of their love. But the handkerchief, which originally belonged to an Egyptian sorcerer, also comes to symbolize the illusions that Iago is "casting" through his plotting and subterfuge.

The Handkerchief Quotes in Othello

The Othello quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Handkerchief. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Prejudice Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of Othello published in 2015.
Act 3, scene 3 Quotes
"Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof."
Related Characters: Othello (speaker), Iago
Related Symbols: The Handkerchief
Page Number: 3.3.412
Explanation and Analysis:

Emilia has picked up Desdemona's handkerchief, which Iago had requested she bring to him, and dutifully presented it to her husband. Iago takes the handkerchief with the plan of leaving it in Cassio's room, when Othello suddenly enters in a frantic, enraged state, and demands that Iago show him "ocular proof" of Desdemona's infidelity. The fact that Othello behaves aggressively and threateningly to Iago––whom he has multiple times praised as honest and righteous––shows that Othello has already been driven wild by jealousy and is no longer capable of making rational assessments of the situation. Perhaps because he is aware of this, he insists that Iago show him visual evidence of Desdemona's supposed crime, implying Othello believes "ocular proof" is beyond doubt. 

The fact that Iago is carrying the handkerchief during this interaction, however, reminds the audience that appearances can be just as misleading as rumors. Now that Iago has reduced Othello to a state of paranoid jealousy, it is easy for Iago to manipulate visual evidence to support his false claim that Desdemona is unfaithful. Othello's trust in visual appearances reflects his mistaken trust of Iago––and both will soon bring about his downfall. 

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Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
"Her honor is an essence that's not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not."
Related Characters: Iago (speaker), Desdemona
Related Symbols: The Handkerchief
Page Number: 4.1.20-21
Explanation and Analysis:

Iago has told Othello that he knows Cassio and Desdemona slept "naked in bed" together, but pretends to still want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Iago has repeatedly referenced the handkerchief, saying that it belongs to Desdemona and that she could therefore give it to whomever she wants; Othello asks if she could likewise give away her honor, and Iago replies that her honor is intangible, and that many seem honorable when they are actually not. Following Othello's obsession with "ocular proof," Iago now fixates on the distinction between visible and invisible evidence, and stresses the unreliability of evaluating Desdemona's "honor" because honor is not visible. 

Note that Iago's statement "they have it very oft that have it not"––meaning many people appear to be honorable but aren't––does not actually apply to Desdemona, but does accurately describe Iago himself. Indeed, the phrasing is reminiscent of Iago's statement earlier in the play, "I am not what I am." Once again, Iago is making wise and astute observations about the nature of human behavior, yet uses these observations to further his deceptive and evil plan. 

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The Handkerchief Symbol Timeline in Othello

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Handkerchief appears in Othello. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 3, scene 3
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
...to tell Othello it is time for dinner. Desdemona tries to soothe him with her handkerchief, but Othello says it is too small and drops it to the floor. They exit... (full context)
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Iago enters. To his delight, Emilia shows him the handkerchief. He grabs it from her hand. She asks for it back unless he has some... (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
When the clown exits, Desdemona wonders what has happened to her handkerchief. Emilia, who is also present, says she doesn't know. (full context)
Prejudice Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
...to bring up Cassio's suit, Othello says he has a headache and asks for the handkerchief he gave her. When, Desdemona admits she doesn't have it at hand, Othello tells her... (full context)
Act 5, scene 2
Prejudice Theme Icon
Manhood and Honor Theme Icon
Womanhood and Sexuality Theme Icon
...happened. Othello insists again that Desdemona was unfaithful and brings up the proof of the handkerchief. Now Emilia explodes in anger, and explains that she was the one who found the... (full context)