Symbol: The handkerchief
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent
abstract ideas or concepts.
A. The handkerchief is more than just a piece of square cloth, it means different things to
different people in the play, and is an indicator of character, a test of relationships
and a key symbol of major themes in the play. It is the pivotal to the plot.
B. The most dominant symbol in the play is the handkerchief that was Othello’s first gift
to Desdemona.
C. Spotted with strawberries the handkerchief, is symbolic of a white wedding sheet
stained with virginal blood. ( This raises the idea of whether Desdemona and Othello
have consummated their marriage and questions Desdemona’s virginity that lurks
beneath the surface of the play.)
D. Othello warns Desdemona that the handkerchief is a sacred love token with magical
powers, and to lose it is to lose his love. Iago has schemed to have it stolen away. The
loss of the handkerchief convinces Othello that Desdemona is guilty of betraying him.
- Othello is so upset that he is
physically ill. Desdemona arrives and
tries to bandage his head with the
- Here Othello touches and sees the
handkerchief, he then drops the
- Emilia finds the handkerchief,
remembering her husband Iago had
asked for her to steal it earlier. Emilia
plans to have it copied, and give the
copied version to Iago.
- Iago enters and snatches the
handkerchief without telling Emilia his
purpose for the handkerchief.
- Iago tells us in his soliloquy , that he
is going to plant the handkerchief in
Cassio’s lodgings, where he is sure to
find it, and hence will provide enough
proof to Othello that Cassio is having
an affair with Desdemona.
- Othello demands proof of
Desdemona’s disloyalty and Iago’s socalled ‘proof’ is the handkerchief.
Act 3 Scene 4
Act 3 Scene 3
Handkerchief Timeline
- Desdemona is puzzled that she can’t
remember where she left the
handkerchief. Emilia says she doesn’t
know where it is, when in fact she does.
- We know that the handkerchief is
evidence in Iago’s case against
Desdemona. But neither women know
nothing about that.
- Othello enters and demands to see
the handkerchief, Desdemona
responds that she doesn’t have it with
her, however informs him that it is not
- Later in the scene Cassio gives the
handkerchief to his prostitute
girlfriend Bianca, she assumes it is a
love token from another woman. Cassio
denies this and reassures her he found
it in his chambers.
- Iago manipulates Othello to
constantly think of the handkerchief, so
that every essence of Dedemona’s
adultery with Cassio has always been
linked to the handkerchief. Othello
links that the handkerchief is a kind of
proof but not a confession.
- Iago arranges for Othello to secretly
overhear Iago and Cassio converse.
Bianca charges in with the
handkerchief proving to Othello Cassio
had the handkerchief given to him by
Act 5 Scene 2
Act 4 Scene 1
Handkerchief Timeline contd.
-Finally in this scene is the last mention
of the handkerchief, Othello accuses
Dedemona of having an affair with
Cassio, but Desdemona denies it.
- Desdemona has died, and it is Emilia
who has the final say on the
handkerchief. She tells the Othello
that it was she who found the
handkerchief and gave it to her
husband Iago. Everyone tells the truth.
Othello’s Gift
Act 3 Scene 4
Othello enters the scene demanding to see the handkerchief, Desdemona tells him she does
not have it , 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).
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).
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.
Othello tells two versions of the how the handkerchief came to be, both versions are relevant
to the play, but raise question about truth, faith superstition and the power of matter over
mind to lead to self-fulfilling prophecy. Othello is expressing his primitive beliefs for the first
Othello’s Gift
Details of the handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries, the handkerchief could represent blood droplets on white sheets
(This raises the idea of whether Desdemona and Othello have consummated their marriage and
questions Desdemona’s virginity that lurks beneath the surface of the play.), a depiction of
Desdemona no longer being a virgin or the ‘fruits of love’ Othello is looking forward to on
the wedding night, but which afterwards he may retain in his mind as an image of
Desdemona’s impurity and loss of chastity.
Strawberries in Christian symbolism mean righteousness; they also have been used in art and
literature to suggest sensuality and sexuality because of their redness and sweetness.
Suggests a guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity
The handkerchief IN-DEPTH
Significance of the handkerchief to Othello
It is a romantic object he gave to Desdemona and asked her to cherish, therefore to him it is a
symbol of his love for her and of the faith and trust which bind their marriage; by losing it she is
A symbol of Desdemona’s body, which he thinks she has given to someone else, it is privacy of
Desdemona made public. Since she is herself valuable emblem of Othello’s success, the
handkerchief is therefore the emblem of that emblem.
It is a sentimental link to Othello’s mother, a symbol of his parents marriage ‘an antique token”
linking him to his childhood past, a superstitious talisman, a magic which must be respectd or
something precious will be destroyed.
He associates it with beauty, intimacy, physical contact, tenderness, the female duty to sooth the
male troubled brow, and these can be stolen from him and enjoyed by others, it seems the loss
of the handkerchief, equals not only the los of love but the loss of Desdemona’s soul, as he sees
Conclusive evidence of his wife’s adultery. On the other hand, by rejecting it as “too little” he is
rejecting Desdemona’s attempts to minister him and therby love; he cuases it to fall to the floor
and lie unnoticed, so that ironically he is the one who separates her fro it and causes the chain
of tragic events to come from it’s loss.
Significance of the handkerchief to Desdemona
It is a love gift, a lucky charm to make Othello love her as his father loved his mother, and her
only link to his family and his past.
She kisses it and talks to it, s a substitute for physical presence of Othello. It suggests her
immaturity ( innocence, purity) that she treats is as a child treats a comfort cloth, unable to be
parted from it.
Her offer to use it as a bandage to bind his head shows her sympathy and wifely duty.
Significance of the handkerchief to Iago
The handkerchief in itself is a silly toy, but it is useful as the provider of the ‘ocular proof’, of
Desdemona’s infidelity which Othello has demanded. It reassures him that fate is on his side,
since it so conveniently materialises just when he needs it. (It questions why Iago ‘wooed’ Emilia
‘a hundred times’ if the plot against Othello is a new idea.) It reassures
It reassures him how clever an opportunist he is to think up a use for it so quickly and it enables
him to go beyond proof of guilt and proceed to the next stages of sentencing and execution.
By Kim and Gaitri