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Othello’s Black Handkerchief
Response to Ian Smith

In the wake of Ian Smith’s carefully marshaled arguments, Shakespeare’s great tragedy will never seem quite the same again. Smith takes us back, of course, to an aspect of Othello’s design that has been contentious ever since the play was first subjected to a systematic critique by the newly appointed Historiographer Royal, Thomas Rymer, in 1692. A would-be playwright himself—still smarting, one must suppose, from the long-ago failure of his own immaculately neoclassical tragedy, Edgar, or the English Monarch (1677)— Rymer, in his Short View of Tragedy, mounted a blistering attack on the playwrights of the previous age for their barbarous neglect of tragic decorum. He reserved particular scorn for the work which “from all the tragedies acted on our English stage, is said to bear the bell away”1—Shakespeare’s Othello. In Rymer’s judgment, the play was reprehensible for the gross “improbabilities” that marred its dramaturgy.2 Bridling against the impropriety of casting a (naturally upright) soldier as the villain of the piece, disdainful of the preposterous suggestion that a mere “Black-amoor” could rise to become a general of Venice (let alone marry the daughter of a senator), Rymer ridiculed a design whose time scheme required that playgoers “must deny their senses, to reconcile it to common sense,” and famously derided a plot that turned upon contrivances so patently ludicrous that the tragic action was reduced to “a Bloody Farce.”3

Long rendered obnoxious by its racial sneers, A Short View has been a convenient whipping boy for detractors of rule-bound neoclassical theory.4 For Karen Newman, Rymer’s contemptuous response to the play exposes him as “a kind of critical Iago.”5 But however much his judgment may have been clouded (like most of ours) by the prejudices of his own time, Rymer was by no means imperceptive. Indeed, as his remarks about the play’s perplexing chronology [End Page 26] demonstrate, he was alert to aspects of Othello’s construction that were not to be seriously addressed until John Wilson sought to account for them, nearly two centuries later, by inventing the idea of “double time.”6 By the same token, Rymer’s strictures on Shakespeare’s breaches of decorum—although he himself could only attribute them to the playwright’s ignorance—look forward to the observations of Susan Snyder, Michael Bristol, Stephen Orgel, and others about the play’s “comic matrix” and its deliberate experiments in generic mixture.7 If sexual jealousy, in Rymer’s opinion, was a fitter subject for comedy than tragedy, nothing seemed to demonstrate this more clearly than the scrap of cloth which provides the confirmation of Othello’s jealous suspicions: “Had it been Desdemona’s Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat: but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania cou’d make any consequence of it....Yet we find, it entered our poet’s head, to make a Tragedy of this Trifle.”8 The result, Rymer concluded in a notorious phrase, might better have been “call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief.”9

Rather than continue to duck the generic embarrassment that Rymer located in the use of a mere scrap of cloth as an engine of tragic peripety, criticism in the late twentieth century chose to confront the problem head-on by discovering in the handkerchief a wealth of unexpected significance. The process began with Lawrence Ross’s exploration of the contradictory emblematic meanings that might be attributed to the strawberries which adorn the embroidered surface of Desdemona’s napkin;10 but the most influential contribution came from Lynda E. Boose in an essay that persuasively identified the handkerchief as a surrogate for the wedding sheets which feature so conspicuously in the play’s final scenes.11 As Desdemona prepares for bed in Act 4, scene 3, Emilia reports that, in obedience to her mistress’s sentimental request in the previous scene (4.2.104–6), she has duly laid the couple’s wedding sheets upon the bed, drawing from [End Page 27] Desdemona the uncanny request to make them serve, “should I die before thee,” as her shroud (4.3.20–23).12 For Boose, the handkerchief ’s strawberry ornaments stand in for the bloodstains that should mark the successful capture of a bride’s virginity—bloodstains that the play’s imagination links to the murderous travesty of nuptial consummation in which Desdemona meets her end.13 In the whiteness of both sheets and handkerchief, it becomes possible to find a reflection of the color that mesmerizes Othello even as he prepares to kill his wife: “Yet I’ll not shed her blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.4–5). Boose’s argument has won almost universal and unconditional acceptance from subsequent commentators, myself included. Its plausibility depends, of course, on the assumption that Desdemona’s handkerchief was indeed white—and this notion has become so deeply ingrained in readers of the play, that a white handkerchief, floating through the air, took the place of more familiar visual epitomes of the play on the cover of the most recent Arden edition.14

Smith’s essay aims to explode this critical consensus. The nub of his argument lies in Othello’s impassioned account of the handkerchief ’s origins. Unlike their cheap, mass-produced descendants, handkerchiefs in Shakespeare’s day were costly handmade items; like Desdemona’s, they were usually of silk, and frequently given as prestigious gifts (5–6). In contrast to its sparely described equivalent in Giraldi Cinthio, of which we are told only that it was “a gift from the Moor . . . most delicately embroidered in the Moorish fashion,”15 Shakespeare’s handkerchief is described in some detail, and credited with magical properties that are seemingly guaranteed not only by the “prophetic fury” of the Sybil who “sewed the work,” but by the “hallowed” worms which produced its silk, as well as by the mysterious properties of the substance in which it was dyed: “mummy, which the skilful / Preserved of maiden’s hearts” (3.4.68–74). Given that “mummy”—originally a bituminous substance, but in Shakespeare’s day normally harvested from dried human corpses—was sold as a brownish or blackish powder, the handkerchief, Smith argues, can scarcely have been white, but must rather have been dark in color. Once this is accepted, the property [End Page 28] becomes capable of a range of significations quite different to those discovered by Boose and her followers. Where the imagined whiteness of Boose’s napkin might seem to link it as much to Desdemona’s own skin as to the sheets on which her body is finally displayed, Smith’s handkerchief is of the protagonist’s own hue—an association, he argues, made stronger by the long-established practise of using fine black silk rather than cosmetic “blackface” to represent the complexion of “Moors.” In so far as its ornamental strawberries complicate that association, they may do so, Smith suggests, by reminding us of the red of ladies’ cheeks, so converting the black handkerchief into a “symbol . . . of interracial marriage” (24).

Of course, Smith’s own assumptions about the blackness of the cloth are not beyond question. The fact that the sibyl’s mummy is said to be conserved of “maiden’s hearts” reminds us that, in addition to more ordinary forms of mumia, the early modern pharmacopeia included dried heart, which might be expected to produce dye of a reddish tint; and since the handkerchief is described—using a verb that suggests staining, rather than the embroidery assumed by Smith— as “spotted with strawberries” (3.3.436; emphasis added), it may be that the dyeing remembered by Othello involves the napkin’s ornament, rather than its background hue. Even if we accept the strong likelihood that it was a dark silk that Shakespeare imagined, its material connection with the Moor’s colour is weakened by the fact that (as Smith himself recognises), the use of dark cloth to represent African skin was largely confined to court drama, while Othello’s reference to his own face as “begrimed and black” (l. 389) seems designed to remind the audience of the very different practice in Shakespeare’s own theater, where skin color was cosmetically rendered (9–12).

However, what is most important about Ian Smith’s argument, I believe, lies less in his own interpretation of the handkerchief, than in his destabilization of its hitherto accepted meanings. In the process, he reveals something about its status as an object of conjecture. In the course of Othello’s defiant self-justification to the Venetian senate, the Moor boasts of how his rational faculties—“My speculative and officed instruments,” as he calls them—are immune to the deceits of “feathered Cupid” and the follies of sexual desire (1.3.266–68). In light of the temptation scene’s ocular obsession (“Make me to see’t,” 3.3.366), we can sense a premonitory quibble in “speculative”—one that reminds us that Othello’s preoccupation with visual witness is simply a metaphor for the endless paranoid “speculation” into which jealousy plunges its abject victims. The handkerchief is nothing more than the arbitrarily selected correlative of that condition. All that we really know about it is what Othello has to tell us in his account of its mysterious history—an account that, despite the handkerchief ’s carefully signaled importance as the Moor’s first gift to Desdemona (l. 311), seems strangely unfamiliar to her (“I’faith, is’t true? . . . Then would to God I [End Page 29] had never seen’t” [3.4.74–76]). Her response exposes Othello’s tale to a suspicion that is exacerbated by the way in which he subsequently reverses a key element in the story, substituting a paternal source for its carefully detailed maternal origin. It is as though, in his determination to endow the lost token with the overplus of significance he needs it to have, Othello has to invest it with a romantic narrative to match the glamour of his own “travailous history” (1.3.139). From an audience point of view, what matters about this narrative is not its truth-status, but the way in which serves to make the handkerchief a focus for our own anxious speculation: the frantic intensity with which the Moor describes its supernatural qualities convinces us that the handkerchief must mean more than its bare materiality would allow. In this, I suggest, it functions like other details in the play—notably those confusing indications that have encouraged so much prurient conjecture about the consummation of Othello’s marriage—to trap the audience into habits of speculation that painfully mirror those of the protagonist himself.

Rymer was not wrong when he called this play “The Tragedy of the Handkerchief.” His condescending tone makes it easy to dismiss the observation as a cheap sarcasm yet Rymer’s language, when he speaks of “making a tragedy of this trifle,” tellingly echoes that of the play itself. A “trifle” was not simply a bauble of no intrinsic value; it still carried of its original sense as “a false or idle tale, told to deceive, cheat, or befool,”16 so it is no surprise that it should be the deceiver Iago who identifies the handkerchief with those “Trifles light as air [that] / Are to the jealous confirmations strong as holy writ” (3.3.324–26; emphasis added). Iago’s sneering phrase is echoed by his wife, whom we know to be the object of his own jealous suspicion: when Emilia indicts him for begging her to steal the handkerchief, she remembers how he did so with “a solemn earnestness / More than indeed belonged to such a trifle” (5.2.226–27; emphasis added). Creating something close to a metatheatrical flourish, her remark highlights the way in which Shakespeare chose to give to this trifling perquisite an even greater prominence than it had enjoyed in Giraldi Cinthio’s source text—and did so precisely because of its seeming insignificance. The handkerchief epitomizes the “Foul disproportions” that Iago so relishes, in a phrase that identifies a recurrent preoccupation of this tragedy (3.3.237): in that sense it is the equivalent of the “nothing” that precipitates the cataclysmic action of Shakespeare’s other great tragedy of disproportion, King Lear. Given to Desdemona as the token of Othello’s love, this piece of fabric becomes the material [End Page 30] equivalent of that purely imaginary cloth, “the flag and sign of love” which Ensign shows to his general, “which is indeed but sign” (1.1.155–56). For Emilia indeed it is precisely a kind of “nothing,” fit only to please her husband’s “fantasy” (3.3.302). Jealous fantasies, as this humiliated wife knows only too well, need nothing to excite them, since “jealous souls are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they are jealous” (3.4.155–56); no wonder the “cause” itself is something that Othello himself cannot, in the end, “name” (5.2.1–3)— though he might have called it a handkerchief. [End Page 31]

Michael Neill

Michael Neill is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland. He edited Othello for the Oxford Shakespeare series.


1. Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy . . . ([London], 1693), 86.

2. Rymer, 92.

3. Rymer, 93, 123, 146.

4. For an intelligently balanced account of Rymer’s place in the play’s critical history, see Edward Pechter, Othello and the Interpretative Traditions (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999), 14, 50, 80–82, 202–3n3.

5. Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor (London: Methuen, 1987), 143–62, esp. 152.

6. See John Wilson, “Dies Borealis: Christopher under Canvas,” 5–7, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 66 (November 1849): 620–54; and 67 (April–May 1850): 481–512, 622–31.

7. Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979); Michael Bristol, “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 21(1990): 3–21; and Stephen Orgel, “Othello and the End of Comedy,” Shakespeare Survey 21 (2003): 105–16. For other variations on this approach, see Michael Neill, ed., Othello (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 5n2.

8. Rymer, 140, 145.

9. Rymer, 135.

10. Lawrence J. Ross, “The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare,” Studies in the Renaissance 7 (1960): 225–40. Associated alike with Venus and the Virgin Mary, strawberries could stand for love and sensuality as well as chastity, but in emblem books, where their leaves often concealed a serpent, they might also represent deceit.

11. Lynda E. Boose, “Othello’s Handkerchief: The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,” ELR 5 (1975): 360–74.

12. All citations of the play are taken from Neill, ed., Othello, and cited in the text by act, scene, and line.

13. For an elaboration of this visual pun, see Michael Neill, “‘Unproper Beds’: Race, Adultery and the Hideous in Othello,” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383–412.

14. Following a habit going back to the eighteenth century, cover designs and other illustrations have typically favored versions of either the temptation scene (with Iago whispering in Othello’s ear) or the murder scene (with Desdemona’s corpse conspicuously displayed on the bed). For more on the illustrative tradition, see Neill, “‘Unproper Beds.’”

15. Giraldi Cinthio, Gli Hecatommithi, trans. Bruno Ferraro, in Neill, ed., Othello, 434–44, esp. 439.

16. OED Online (Oxford: Oxford UP, December 2012), http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/205961?rskey=VQ5lYs&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed January 25, 2013), s.v. “trifle, n.,” 1.