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4. Desdemona’s Handkerchief
About this Lecture
In this module, we think about the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief in the play, focusing in particular on: (i) the view of Thomas Rymer (A Short View of Tragedy, 1693) who mocked the fact that so great a tragedy could hang on something as insignificant as a handkerchief (“So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief!”); (ii) the play’s interest in forensic rhetoric and the legal process – what does and does not count as admissible evidence? what can be believed?; (iii) the idea that the handkerchief, like Desdemona herself, is tainted – the handkerchief spotted with strawberries, Desdemona tainted by her supposed sexual indiscretions; (iv) Desdemona’s recognition of just how important the handkerchief is; (v) the value of handkerchiefs generally in early modern society, and the value of Desdemona’s handkerchief in particular – which Cassio likes so much he asks Bianca to copy; (vi) the intimacy of the handkerchief via its connection to bodily fluids; (vii) the importance of the handkerchief in Othello’s courtship of Desdemona (EMILIA: “This was her first remembrance from the Moor”); (viii) the sense in which the handkerchief goes beyond the category of accessory and is spoken about as a kind of extension of Desdemona’s own body; (ix) the extent to which Desdemona herself is described like a handkerchief – gentle, tender, delicate, etc.; (x) the extent to which the handkerchief (white with red strawberries) represents the early modern idea of female beauty – white complexion with red blushing cheeks – as well as symbolising the bedsheets after one’s wedding night; (xi) the suggestion that the handkerchief was in fact black, not white; (xii) the importance of textiles as texts to be read/decoded, and the symbolism of strawberries in particular; (xiii) the gender politics of textiles as texts, which tend to be studied and (mis)read by male characters, much like the female characters themselves; (xiv) the importance of the handkerchief as a symbol of labour and women’s work in the home; (xv) Othello’s account of the origin of the handkerchief, which transforms the object into something that has crossed continents and spanned centuries – much more than just a piece of a fabric; and (xvi) the importance of the fact that Bianca finds herself unable to make a copy of Desdemona’s handkerchief.
In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores Shakespeare’s Othello. In the first module, we provide a broad introduction to the play and some of its key themes. In the second module, we think about the theme of race and racial difference in the play before turning in the third module to the theme of religious conversion in the play – the idea of “turning Turk”. In the fourth module, we look in more detail at the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief, while in the fifth module we provide an overview of the critical history of the play, from the focus on the character of Desdemona in the earliest criticism to the exploration of race and gender politics (and their intersection) in the most recent criticism.
Note: We use the Arden edition of the play (Third Series, Revised Edition, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann). Students using a different version of the play may encounter slight differences in both the text and line numbers.
A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.
Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.
Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).
Cite this Lecture
Smith, H. (2021, January 04). Shakespeare: Othello - Desdemona’s Handkerchief [Video]. MASSOLIT. https://massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-othello-smith/desdemona-s-handkerchief
Smith, H. "Shakespeare: Othello – Desdemona’s Handkerchief." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 04 Jan 2021, https://massolit.io/courses/shakespeare-othello-smith/desdemona-s-handkerchief