restricted access Othello’s Black Handkerchief: Response to Ian Smith
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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...