Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.

Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
Othello's Handkerchief
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0379  Wednesday, 15 July 2009

[1] From:   Carol Barton <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
     Date:   Wednesday, 15 Jul 2009 07:48:32 -0500 (CDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0372 Othello's Handkerchief

[2] From:   Martin Mueller <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
     Date:   Wednesday, 15 Jul 2009 08:13:10 -0500
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0372 Othello's Handkerchief


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Carol Barton <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:       Wednesday, 15 Jul 2009 07:48:32 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: 20.0372 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0372 Othello's Handkerchief

What an interesting thread!

I have a slightly different "take" on the matter: it doesn't really 
matter whether the handkerchief actually is, or is only believed to be, 
endowed with magical properties. Like the forbidden fruit of Genesis, 
it's symbolic of a test of faith -- and its loss, like Eve's ingestion 
of the malus, is confirmation of faith broken. Othello's public and 
private versions of the handkerchief's history are not necessarily 
disingenuous or sinister: perhaps he thinks others will mock him or 
think his confidence in Desdemona's fidelity less than firm (as we know 
it is) if he tells the token's true origin and properties; perhaps he 
makes the story up to enhance the value of the gift to the 
romantically-inclined Desdemona -- or perhaps he's lying about it 
altogether, and purchased the handkerchief himself from a street-vendor. 
The point is that it is a *token of his love* -- which Desdemona treats 
like the "trifle" Emilia calls it -- symbolic (to him) of her valuation 
of his devotion. It's a nothing -- and an everything -- like many of the 
little treasures each of us has in his or her life that are valuable 
only because of the giver and the circumstances of the gift, but 
worthless (or trifling) in anyone else's eyes. It's human nature to 
invest certain events and things with the property of "signs" -- and the 
more superstitious the individual, the more likely he or she is to 
believe that stepping on a crack will actually break his or her mother's 
back.

I don't think you can separate the vehicle from the tenor in this case. 
Magic or not, the handkerchief is deeply meaningful to Othello -- not 
because of its supposed inherent powers, but because of power with which 
he himself has invested it. It may as well have been his own throbbing 
heart that Desdemona carelessly dropped.

Best to all,
Carol Barton

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Martin Mueller <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:       Wednesday, 15 Jul 2009 08:13:10 -0500
Subject: 20.0372 Othello's Handkerchief
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0372 Othello's Handkerchief

Returning once more to the handkerchief, I am grateful to Julia 
Griffin's observation that late in the play Othello refers to the 
handkerchief as  an "antique token" that his father gave to his mother 
-- a (not so?) distant relative of the "turquois" that Shylock's wife 
gave to him when he was a bachelor. Deeply charged objects, and much 
turns on their loss.

It is unclear to me whether the two accounts are incompatible in the way 
in which, for instance, the two accounts of Portia's death are 
incompatible, but I am very skeptical about any interpretation that 
uses the possible discrepancy to turn Othello into a man who makes up 
stories with a manipulative intent. That is Iago's line.

Desdemona 'loses' the handkerchief because at a critical moment she 
cares more about Othello's aching head than about the thing that 
symbolizes their relationship. That is part of the 'thing|ring'  paradox 
that Shakespeare had explored in the Merchant of Venice. The German 18th 
century playwright Lessing, a very good reader of Shakespeare, saw the 
connection between the ring and the handkerchief. In Nathan the Wise, 
which turns on Boccaccio's story of the three rings, the 'true' ring has 
the magical power of making its owner 'amiable'. The judge who cannot 
decide which of the three rings is true, tells its bears that the most 
amiable will be the owner of the true ring -- a subtle way of re- and 
de-mythologizing the magic object.

Othello at the critical moment attends not to Desdemona but to the thing 
that he turns into a fetish. This is the wrong thing to do, just as 
Desdemona's disregard of the handkerchief was the right thing to do. 
 From those two moments of distraction the tragedy follows, and in very 
deep ways they carry fundamental aspects of the relationship of Othello 
and Desdemona.

I think you miss the delusion of Othello if you think of him at this 
moment as setting up Desdemona. And since the second version of the 
story (the father gave it to the mother) does not appear until much 
later, the audience would not have any basis for challenging the truth 
of the story. And how productive is a line of inquiry that starts from 
an "aha" moment where after discovering that it was "really" Othello's 
father who gave the handkerchief to his mother you revise your 
understanding of the first account and decide that Othello made it up? 
These are moves that belong in the world of detective novels.

In the end it is good to remember that the handkerchief is Shakespeare's 
'fabrication'. He makes a lot of fuss about the object at a very 
particular moment in the play. The fuss goes a long way to tell you 
about Othello's delusion, but it tells you very little about him as a 
dissembler


_______________________________________________________________
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, 
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the 
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the 
editor assumes no responsibility for them.
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.