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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
Othello's Handkerchief
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0369  Monday, 13 July 2009

[1] From:   Brian Willis <
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     Date:   Thursday, 9 Jul 2009 16:18:43 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief

[2] From:   Julia Griffin <
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     Date:   Friday, 10 Jul 2009 05:23:51 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief

[3] From:   Louis Swilley <
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     Date:   Saturday, 11 Jul 2009 06:03:52 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Brian Willis <
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Date:       Thursday, 9 Jul 2009 16:18:43 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief

Although I generally agree with Martin Mueller that it is hard to 
attribute a wilful "fabulation" on Othello's part without evidence, if 
we assume that it is possible that the story might not be true, or might 
be imbued with flourishes of embellishment, why does the burden of 
falsehood fall on Othello? It's a third-hand story. We might as well 
consider the motivations and character of the two absent storytellers: 
Othello's mother and the "Egyptian" that gave her the handkerchief.

Personally, I believe that the story's significance lies more within the 
thematic issues of the mind's bent towards believing the proof of 
circumstantial evidence. The Egyptian "was a charmer" and "could almost 
read the thoughts of people" (!?), and the handkerchief itself 
personifies a seducer in that it is the agent that could "subdue my 
father/ Entirely to her love". The story reveals Othello's mindset 
(which, I believe, renders the tragedy more palpable if these small 
clues reflect Othello's struggling to convince himself that Iago must 
surely be right because he is "honest", despite his belief in the 
character of Desdemona).

OTHELLO
That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people: she told her, while
she kept it,
'Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies: 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;
Make it a darling like your precious eye;
To lose't or give't away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.

DESDEMONA
Is't possible?

OTHELLO
'Tis true: there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.

DESDEMONA
Indeed! is't true?

OTHELLO
Most veritable; therefore look to't well.

The handkerchief is Iago's physical embodiment of Desdemona's ability to 
"charm" or "seduce" men, such that Othello's mindset is prodded towards 
it later in Act IV to seal his distrust, the discussion of which 
actually directly leads to Othello's "fit".

OTHELLO
She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that?

IAGO
Her honour is an essence that's not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not:
But, for the handkerchief, --

OTHELLO
By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it.

In essence, Othello's belief in the value of the handkerchief is the 
chief substance of its worth, rather than the verity of the story told 
to him by his mother, or even the story he might be creating for 
Desdemona. It is the method by which Othello can relate to Desdemona the 
worth of "her honour " to his mind, and the way a contemporary actor can 
imbue an object or a prop with emotional value in rehearsal exercises 
(see acting practices since Stanislavski). Of course, that was not a 
consideration in Shakespeare's writing (most likely), but it does 
explain our fascination in considering Othello's overwhelming statements 
of importance in its worth, and consequently whether we can trust the 
story at all.

Doubly troubling to the couple is that such a fantastic story was the 
substance of their initially falling in love (see Act 1 Scene 3), 
whereas it is here the basis for the proof of Desdemona's apparent 
falsity. Deeply disturbing for the emotional health of Othello (and, I 
can attest, for the actor having to portray that very scene).

Brian Willis

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Julia Griffin <
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Date:       Friday, 10 Jul 2009 05:23:51 -0400
Subject: 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief

Othello tells two stories about the handkerchief, which seem 
incompatible: first, to Desdemona, that an Egyptian charmer gave it to 
his mother, as a piece of aphrodisiac magic; second, to everyone else, 
that it was an antique token his father gave his mother -- an ordinary 
love gift. I've always assumed, therefore, that we're supposed to 
realize that the first story is made up, to frighten Desdemona -- a 
nightmare example of that story-telling she finds so fascinating in him 
("Is't possible ..?")

Julia Griffin

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Louis Swilley <
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Date:       Saturday, 11 Jul 2009 06:03:52 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0364 Othello's Handkerchief

I believe the responses here have not yet related Othello's remarks to 
Desdemona about the magic of the  handkerchief to his defense of himself 
before the Venetian council. In that defense, he tells of his report to 
Desdemona about "the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath 
their shoulders" (I, iii, 143ff). (In his film version of this scene, 
Olivier more or less winked at the council members when he reported this 
story given to the gullible Desdemona -- an interpretation that 
curiously worked against his defense of his innocence, for it says that 
he knew he was joking -- evidently to charm the girl.). If I were 
directing this play, I would use Olivier's interpretation of this early 
scene, suggesting, as it does, 1) Othello's command of the present 
situation, and 2) his present good sense in denying the "magic" 
silliness of belief in "men whose heads do grow beneath their 
shoulders." Then, when Othello has been persuaded by Iago that his wife 
has betrayed him, he is unhinged, and the "magic" qualities of the 
handkerchief  are  real to him.

L. Swilley

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