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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
Othello's Handkerchief
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0372  Tuesday, 14 July 2009

[1] From:   Jacob Goldberg <
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     Date:   Monday, 13 Jul 2009 16:41:18 -0700
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

[2] From:   Larry Weiss <
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     Date:   Monday, 13 Jul 2009 13:36:28 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

[3] From:   Scott Oldenburg <
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     Date:   Monday, 13 Jul 2009 10:33:38 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

[4] From:   Susan St. John <
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     Date:   Monday, 13 Jul 2009 18:53:51 -0700
     Subj:   re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Jacob Goldberg <
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Date:       Monday, 13 Jul 2009 16:41:18 -0700
Subject: 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

When Emilia found the handkerchief, the magic handkerchief, on the 
floor, where Desdemona had accidentally dropped it, she obviously had no 
respect for the supernatural powers attributed to it by Othello.

During the scene, in which Othello rants and raves about those powers.

                               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 a 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.

Emilia sits in a corner of the room and hears every word. Yet, in the 
last act, she describes the handkerchief as a trifle.

    That handkerchief thou speak'st of
    I found by fortune and did give my husband,
    For often with a solemn earnestness,
    More than indeed belong'd to such a trifle

After Othello leaves the room, Emilia tries to console Desdemona, and 
asks, Is not this man jealous?

To which, Desdemona replies, I ne'er saw this before.

    Sure there's some wonder in this handkerchief;
    I am most unhappy in the loss of it.

Desdemona is beginning to see a "magic" handkerchief.

Emilia, however, although having witnessed the violent attack by Othello 
upon Desdemona, and Desdemona's distress at the loss of the 
handkerchief, (a "trifle", as Emilia would later call it), can only ask, 
disingenuously, Is not this man jealous?

Iago was the cause of Desdemona's murder by Othello, and of Othello's 
suicide, both of whom were innocent victims. Did Shakespeare think that 
Emilia earned her fate?

Jacob Goldberg

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Larry Weiss <
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Date:       Monday, 13 Jul 2009 13:36:28 -0400
Subject: 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

Brian Willis makes a good point about the slipperiness of hearsay 
statements; i.e., it is possible that either Othello's mother or the 
Egyptian who gave her the handkerchief had embellished the truth and 
Othello was taken in by that. But Brian spoils his point by seeming to 
conclude from this that Othello must have believed the story. Hearsay is 
particularly unreliable because of the multiple levels at which 
fabrication or error can creep into the narrative and the extreme 
difficulty (frequently, impossibility) of testing the truth. One of 
those levels is the veracity of the witness (in this case, Othello), who 
might fabricate the story, report a story that he himself does not 
believe, or believe a story that the declarant made up or did not 
herself believe. Brian assumes the last of these, but there is no basis 
upon which to make that assumption.

Louis Swilley points out that Othello is likely to be the source of the 
fanciful story as he has a history of telling such tall tales. Of 
course, there are such things as cannibals. As for men whose heads grow 
beneath their shoulders, I am under the impression that this was a 
common belief at the time, so it would not be understood by 
Shakespeare's audience as a far-fetched tale.

The best of these close readings is Julia Griffin's. She points out that 
Othello himself tells two inconsistent stories about the handkerchief, 
with the one he tells everyone other than Desdemona being a quite common 
event, but which explains why he cherishes the handkerchief without 
having to imbue it with magical properties.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Scott Oldenburg <
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Date:       Monday, 13 Jul 2009 10:33:38 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

Phil Collington has very good article on this very topic, "Othello the 
Liar" in The Mysterious and the Foreign in Early Modern England, edited 
by Helen Ostovitch, Mary Silcox, and Graham Roebuck.

Also, could it also be that Othello's inability to keep his story 
straight reflects his own mental breakdown?

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Susan St. John <
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Date:       Monday, 13 Jul 2009 18:53:51 -0700
Subject: 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    re: SHK 20.0369 Othello's Handkerchief

I am so very grateful to everyone for their responses to this query. I 
am, of course, approaching the question from an acting/directing 
standpoint, so I do look at Othello as a real person who chooses to do 
what he does for a reason.

Several people have made excellent points, but Julia Griffin has raised 
an important point:

 >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.

This makes it seem that the story of magic is made up. However, if it's 
fabricated (pun intended), this makes Othello a dissembler (as Louis 
Swilley was pointing out). If we believe Othello is devious and lies for 
his own purposes, doesn't that make him as bad as Iago?  If the story IS 
true, why didn't he tell her when he first gave it to her?  The only 
answer I have there is because the magic wouldn't work if she knew about 
it!  But that also makes it look like he is pulling a deception on her, 
and lessens the truth of his love.

The other question that comes to mind is, when exactly did he give it to 
her?  It is clearly stated that it's the first token he gave to her, 
making it sound like it is one gift among many that followed, but when 
describing the magic he says he gave it to her when he knew he would 
"wive" her. The inconsistencies here combine to make me believe he makes 
up the story to trap her.

However, whether the story is true or not, the only outcome of his 
telling her is so that she will admit she lost it (or gave it away), 
thus essentially confirming the end of their relationship, or she will 
deny having lost it (or having given it away), thereby lying to him and 
proving herself to be a dissembler, which will bring about the end of 
their relationship.

By telling her the story at all he is condemning her (damned if she did 
and damned if she didn't). He already believes Iago's version anyway, so 
forcing her into this no-win situation becomes the device for him to 
justify killing her.

Thank you again for your thoughts on this subject,
Susan St. John


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