The Handkerchief II
The Power of a Trifle (cf. 3.3.322)
Othello will examine his wife's hand in 3.4 before turning attention to his wife's handkerchief. The scrutiny of the hand shows Othello's growing paranoia and mental instability. Desdemona doesn't catch on to the way Othello wants to impugn her fidelity through his talk about the moistness and heat of her hand (3.4.36-47), and she switches the conversation to Othello's promise to do anything she wants on behalf of Cassio (3.4.49; cf. 3.3.76). The last time Cassio's name was mentioned in Othello's hearing was by Iago in the previous scene, where Iago said he saw "Cassio wipe his beard" with the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona (3.3.439). Thus, Iago made the connection for Othello between the handkerchief and Cassio. Now, when Desdemona makes reference to Cassio, Othello brings up the handkerchief.
The Handkerchief Has a Story, Too
Of course Desdemona cannot produce the handkerchief when Othello demands it. The audience has seen it fall from Othello's pulsating head onto the floor, to be taken up by Emilia and given to Iago. For the first time in the play, Othello uses critical words of Desdemona. "That's a fault (3.4.55)," he says when she cannot produce it. Rather than using this as an occasion to find out why she cannot produce it or how it might have become lost, Othello chooses to unload on Desdemona the story of the handkerchief. In hindsight it ought to have been so easy for one of them to have stopped the headlong rush of the action in line 54 of 3.4 to talk about it, to say something, to call "time out." But, Othello cannot do that. His steely resolve of 3.3 now forces him on to his story about the origin and nature of the handkerchief. The story is another romantic and exotic one, but it becomes more macabre and grotesque as it develops. By telling the recent history of the handkerchief (3.4.55-68) before its "ancient history (3.3.69-75)," Othello is building a bridge from an explicable but frightening present to a terrifying past. Just as his story in 1.3 left Desdemona speechless [all she could say was that his story was "passing strange" or "wondrous pitiful (1.3.160,161)"], Othello's story here also overpowers her. His authority over Desdemona rests not simply on his position as husband or his role as military commander, but on his capacity as story-teller.
The Handkerchief's Story
Whereas Iago contemptuously dismissed Cassio as a man who was "fram'd to make women false (1.3.398)," Othello will tell the story of the handkerchief which was made to make a woman "amiable, and subdue my father/ Entirely to her love (3.4.59-60)." The handkerchief was not the first, and definitely will not be the last, remedy that a woman has invoked to try to keep her husband from straying. In this case, Othello says that it was given to his mother by an Egyptian charmer, a woman who could "almost read/ the thoughts of people (3.4.57-58)," and that the original purpose of the handkerchief was to keep a woman's husband faithful. It had a magical potency to subdue a husband entirely to a wife's love but if it was lost or given away [and here Othello must have looked searchingly at a scared Desdemona], it would give the man license to rove "after new fancies (3.4.63)." There is nothing in Othello's speech that would indicate that the man would have license to kill the woman, however.
But the story of the handkerchief doesn't stop there. There was what literary scholars call a "chain of transmission," as the handkerchief was given from the Egyptian charmer to Othello's mother to Othello to Desdemona. He drops in the point that he mother "dying" gave it to him, thus heightening the emotional attachment to the handkerchief and the near sacrality of the object.
The Sacred Handkerchief
But the handkerchief also enjoys a distant past, a long history, a history drenched in terrifying religious symbols. It was sewed by a 200 year-old sybil, a prophetess, one who could see the future, who herself was in her "prophetic fury (3.4.72)" when she sowed the work. It is reminiscent of Virgil's description of the foaming oracle, which becomes incoherent and overcome when it becomes a channel of divine power. So, the handkerchief was sowed by a sacred figure in a sacred trance, using material from "hallowed" worms to make the silk, and using blood of mummies to make the red strawberries that covered the handkerchief.
Does a woman really have to go this far to secure a man's fidelity? That is the irony here, because it is not the man's fidelity that is at stake. It is Desdemona's supposed roving eye and energy directed toward Cassio that has enraged Othello. But the "deep past" of the handkerchief lends a somber and grotesque dimension to Othello's story. We can hear him as he intones the bloody past of the handkerchief as he contemplates the bloody present right before him.
But through his story we learn that the handkerchief, for all of its divine or sacred characteristics, is really an instrument of compulsion rather than freedom. By not being mislaid, the handkerchief made certain that love would not likewise be mislaid. Are we to think, therefore, that prior to the loss of the handkerchief the love Desdemona bore for Othello or, conversely, his love for her, was compelled? That though the participants were seemingly willing lovers and impassioned partners, it was in fact the mystery and power of the napkin kept them in harmony with each other?
When Othello spoke his earlier entrancing speech to Brabantio and Desdemona, his dark past, even though it was vividly described, seemed to fade away in the bright light of the Venetian present (1.3). The limitations of the past were no impediments to the freedom of the present. The stories were told in vivid language and, when told, tamed. In 3.4., however, the past is used not to unleash freedom but in service of bondage, in order to limit and constrain and constrict. The handkerchief subdues people (men); if lost it makes people rove. It possesses terrifying powers that can be unleashed in the present. It is a fearful reminder of the capriciousness of life just when caprice is about to overtake all of the main characters. No wonder that when the history of the handkerchief is told, Desdemona blurts out, "Then would to God that I had never seen't (3.4.77)." It is just too powerful for her to handle, even if it supposedly would make her amiable and subdue her husband.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long