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English Literature   >   Shakespeare: Othello

The Handkerchief

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Shakespeare: Othello

In this course, Professor Lisa Hopkins (Sheffield Hallam University) explores six aspects of the critical reception of Shakespeare's Othello. In the first module, we think about the critical reception of the handkerchief, beginning with Thomas Rymer's criticism that Shakespeare could allow so much human suffering to depend on something so insignificant. After that, we think about the ways in which the play has been read in religious terms, before turning in the third module to the critical reception of race in the play. In the fourth and fifth modules, we think about the critical reception of the characters of Iago and Othello, respectively, before turning in the sixth and final module to the critical reception of women in the play.

The Handkerchief

In this module, we think about the critical reception of the handkerchief in Othello, focusing in particular on: (i) the absurdity, in Thomas Rymer’s view, that so great a tragedy could depend on something as insignificant as a handkerchief; (ii) the idea that the handkerchief (white, spotted with red strawberries) might represent something else, e.g. Othello and Desdemona’s wedding sheets (white, spotted with hymeneal blood); (iii) the value of cloth in the early modern world, especially Cypriot cloth, and the idea that the handkerchief might not be as worthless as it first appears; (iv) the symbolism of the silk handkerchief in the early modern world, and the extent to which it might represent romantic or sexual relations between two (or more) characters.

Reading List:
– Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1693)
– Lynda E. Boose, 'Othello's Handkerchief: "The Recognizance and Pledge of Love", English Literary Renaissance 5.3 (1975)
– Ian Smith, 'Othello's Black Handkerchief', Shakespeare Quarterly 64.1 (2013)
– Roger Christofides, Othello's Secret (2016)
– Brett Gamboa, Shakespeare's Double Plays: Dramatic Economy on the Early Modern Stage (2018)

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Hopkins, L. (2020, January 06). Shakespeare: Othello - The Handkerchief [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Hopkins, L. "Shakespeare: Othello – The Handkerchief." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 06 Jan 2020,


Prof. Lisa Hopkins

Prof. Lisa Hopkins

Sheffield Hallam University