Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0477. Tuesday, 25 June 1996.
From: Jacob Goldberg <
Date: Monday, 24 Jun 1996 19:57:29 -0400
Subject: What did Emilia know and when did she know it?
For a long time, I have felt that Emilia could not possibly have been unaware
that the handkerchief which was dropped by Desdemona and picked up by her
(Emilia) was the same handkerchief the loss of which was the occasion of
Othello's wrath and Desdemona's distress. The excerpts below will explain why
(I have capitalized "handkerchief" because in this context we are talking, not
about a handkerchief, but about The Handkerchief).
Why would Shakespeare have given us so much indication that Emilia knew very
well, and all the time, that the handkerchief she "found by fortune" was the
same one that occasioned Othello's abuse of Desdemona? Can he really have
expected his audience to believe that the connection dawned on her only when
Othello, after the murder, again referred to the "pledge of love which I first
gave her", the Handkerchief?
I guess that the answer to that question is that he did and they do. Are there
any dissenting opinions?
How Emilia came into possession of the Handkerchief.
Act III, Scene 3, Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello present:
Oth. I have a pain upon my forehead here.
Des. ....Let me but bind it hard, within this hour It will be well.
Oth. Your napkin is too little;
(He puts the Handkerchief from him, and she drops it.)
Let it alone. Come, I'll go in with you.
(Exeunt Oth.and Des.)
Emil. I am glad I have found this napkin;
This was her first remembrance from the Moor;
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Woo'd me to steal it; but she so loves the token, -
For he conjured her she should ever keep it, -
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I'll have the work ta'en out
And give it Iago
Emilia seems greatly impressed by the great sentimental value placed on the
"napkin" by both Othello and Desdemona. And she doesn't want to give it to
Iago ("my wayward husband"); instead she intends to copy the work and give that
At that moment, in walks Iago, who, after a little repartee, snatches the
Handkerchief from Emilia's hand, whereupon she cries "Poor lady, she'll run mad
when she shall lack it". He tells her "Shut up and don't talk about it." or as
Shakespeare would say, "Be not acknown on't".
Othello Abuses Desdemona
Act III, Scene 4, Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia present
Oth. Lend me thy Handkerchief.
Des. Here, my lord.
Oth. That which I gave you.
Des. I have it not about me.
Des. No, indeed, my lord.
Oth. That is a fault.
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
... if she lost it
Or made a gift of it. my father's eye
Should hold her loathed; ...she dying, gave it me
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so; and take heed on `t;
... To lose it or give't away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.
Des. It is not lost, but what an if it were?
Des. I say it is not lost.
Oth. Fetch't, let me see't.
Des. Why, so I can, sir, but I will not now,
... Pray you, let Cassio be received again.
Oth. Fetch me the Handkerchief; my mind misgives.
Des. Come, come;
You'll never meet a more sufficient man.
Oth. The Handkerchief!
Des. A man that all his time ......
Oth. The Handkerchief!
Des. In sooth, you are to blame.
Oth. Away! [exit]
Emilia has been present all this time, present but not voting. She has said
not a word to save her mistress in this most unpleasant and threatening
confrontation. She knew the importance of the Handkerchief when she picked it
up; she knows what happened to it, and she has heard Othello describe the
consequences of losing it or giving it away. Finally, when Desdemona says to
her, "Sure there's some wonder in this Handkerchief; I am most unhappy in the
loss of it", she breaks her silence and consoles her mistrtess thus:
Emil. `Tis not a year or two shows us a man;
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us.
Not a word about the Handkerchief, although Othello has reached a crescendo
drumbeat with his The Handkerchief, The Handkerchief.
Then in Act IV, Scene 2, she has a private interview with Othello. who is
trying to ferret out some confirmation of Desdemona's infidelity. She still
does not connect the handkerchief she found, (the napkin), with the
Handkerchief that Othello is in such a rage about and the loss of which so
bitterly distresses Desdemona.
But after Othello murders Desdemona, Emilia suddenly has complete recall and
says to Othello:
Emil. O thou dull Moor! that Handkerchief thou speak'st of
I found by fortune, and did give my husband;
Come, come, Emilia, you didn't find it "by fortune"; you picked it up when
you saw Desdemona drop it. And you kept it until your "wayward husband" took
it from you. And you never mentioned this to Desdemona, even when she was
being abused because of its "loss"
I try to imagine what Desdemona said to Emilia, when they met in Heaven, and
what Emilia replied. Might it have been
Des. I told you, Emilia, how unhappy I was over the loss of the
Handkerchief and you were there when Othello went at me with
The Handkerchief, The Handkerchief, over and over again and
again. Why didn't you tell him, or me, where it was?
Emil. I was dumb, Mistress, I was dumb.