The play, “Othello” by William Shakespeare, is full of deception and evil, mainly orchestrated by Iago who manipulates Othello into believing his wife has been unfaithful to him. The centerpiece of Iago’s menacing plan is Desdemona’s handkerchief.
It was given to her by Othello who got it from his mother. The handkerchief represented his parents love and loyalty to one another. Othello passed it onto Desdemona for the same purpose. During this Early Modern Era, Iago exploits his wife’s place in society to retrieve Desdemona’s handkerchief which is the kryptonite to their marriage. Kim Hall writes in, “Othello, The Moor of Venice: Texts and Contexts,” that, “a woman was primarily defined by her status within the household as a wife, mother, daughter, or servant” (Hall 14). Iago exploits his societal hierarchy over Emilia to demand that she obtain Desdemona’s handkerchief and give it to him one way or another.
Emilia must obey her husband, and innocently carriers out his demands. Othello’s family heirloom represents the love and devotion shared between him and Desdemona. Iago exploits the symbolism the handkerchief carried between them and shifts its meaning into a symbol of greed and deception to get close to Othello and falsy prove his wife’s infidelity to become Lieutenant.
Iago puts up a facade of loyalty to Othello to ultimately gain his trust and become Lieutenant. To do this, Iago says he must, “..
. abuse Othello’s ear”(1.3.
386). Othello won Desdemona by telling her stories, and Iago figures he must do the same to win Othello’s trust. His plan starts off by planting the seed in Othello’s mind that there is a possibility that he is right in telling him Desdemona has been unfaithful. Iago sees Desdemona and Cassio talking to one another at a party and Iago sees this as his chance to get his plan rolling. He alludes to the fact that there might be something going on between them by telling Othello, “Ha! I like not that” (3.
3.37). Othello wonders what the issue is, and Iago implies that there might be more going on than it appears to be, and when Othello presses the point, he acts innocent. Iago really is a brilliant menacing mastermind.
He leaves everything up to Othello’s imagination with his leading questions. From here on out, he has planted the seed in his mind, and has partially gained Othello’s trust. Shortly after Iago has partially convinced Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, he gains possession of the handkerchief through Emilia who sees Desdemona drop it, and stays to pick it up. She knows the significance it has with Desdemona, so she plans to have it copied and give the copy to Iago so Desdemona has hers. However, Iago appears and Emilia hopes to please him by telling him about what she has just found. Emilia happily disclosed, “I have something for you” (3.
3.301). When she pulls out the handkerchief it takes a moment for Iago to register why she it so excited about it.
When he does, he keeps his cool and tells her to keep her mouth shut and to go away. Iago quickly divulges the next part of his plan to the audience. He is going to drop the handkerchief in Cassio’s lodging where Cassio will be sure to find it. A little later in the scene, Othello demands proof of Desdemona’s disloyalty, and Iago’s final so-called “proof” is the handkerchief.
Iago 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 replied with a sense of urgency that it was his first gift to Desdemona, and Iago lies and replies that he didn’t know that, but earlier in the day he saw Cassio wipe his beard with that very handkerchief. The meaning of the handkerchief has been molded from love and loyalty to proof of infidelity. By this point Othello is already deep into ill thinking and it starting to plot revenge on Desdemona.
Othello is engulfed in rage mainly caused by Iago’s proof with the handkerchief, so at this point, the handkerchief symbolizes rage. In this time period, women were seen as more susceptible to temptation, which could be one of the reasons why it was so easy for Iago to convince Othello of Desdemona’s disloyalty; Kim hall writes, “…
women were often seen as more susceptible to temptation and therefore as the source of danger in the marriage” (Hall 15). Othello is enraged but realized if Desdemona can summon the handkerchief, Iago must be mistaken, however unlikely. Othello demands, “Lend my thy handkerchief” (3.4.52). Desdemona pleads her innocence in her misplacement of the handkerchief.
At this moment, the handkerchief represents innocence in a setting of rage. However, Othello has been brainwashed far too much by Iago to look into Desdemona’s eyes and see nothing but infidelity and guilt. Othello comes to the unfortunate conclusion that he must kill her to regain his masculinity. He strangles her, however innocent, to death. Many characters come flooding into their bedroom due to all the noise.
Desdemona is half dead and her last words to Emilia do not find Othello guilty of anything. It does not take Emilia long to put the pieces together and find Iago as the orchestrator of the situation. Iago simply proclaims, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word (5.
2.355-356). This is the last time Iago speaks in the play.
He does not gloat about how his plan went perfectly. Othello demands why he would do such a thing to him, but Iago remains silent, possibly regretting what he did. Given the fact that the handkerchief essentially created this calamity, it now symbolized grief, regret, silence, and death. The malleability of the handkerchief symbolism is clear when traced through the play.
It was originally made to symbolize Othello’s parent’s loyalty to one another. Othello passed it onto Desdemona for similar reasons. Iago exploited his place in society over Emilia to make her obtain the handkerchief and give it to him. He used it to exploit how much it meant to the both of them and turned its symbolism into greed and deception which made Othello turn of his innocent lover.
The handkerchief caused Desdemona’s death by the manipulative hands of Iago. When all said and done, Othello and Desdemona are dead. The two shared eternal love that was easily dismantled by Iago with his misuse of the handkerchief which goes to show just how much it meant to each them.