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Felt Absences: The Stage Properties of Othello's Handkerchief Andrew Sofer Desdemona's handkerchief makes its first appearance in Shakespeare's source, Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi. According to Cinthio, it is "a handkerchief embroidered most delicately in the Moorish fashion, which the Moor had given her [Disdemona] and which was treasured by the Lady and her husband too."1 Cinthio's handkerchief contains no magic in its web; it is, rather, a crude plot device whose utility depends upon a string of chance events.2 By contrast, there is nothing coincidental in Shakespeare 's dramatic embroidering of Cinthio's lurid pulp. In performance , Othello's handkerchief exerts an uncanny power over both characters and audience, and it propels the action as it repeatedly emerges in the right place at the wrong time. It seems almost to bend the characters to its own enigmatic will. How do we account for the handkerchief's extraordinary grip on the audience's experience of Othello! Certainly no performance of the play can occur without it. When lago tells Roderigo that "we work by wit and not by witchcraft," he may not, strictly speaking, be accurate.3 Without the magic handkerchief, Iago's lies would not stick; the drama would be literally and figuratively unstageable. In its three brief appearances, the handkerchief draws the six characters it touches—Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, lago, Cassio, Bianca—into its own repetitive story, a story which begins in love and ends in death. As if to fulfill the sibyl's prophecy of doom, by the play's end the first three characters are dead, the fourth faces torture and death, the fifth is wounded, and the sixth is in prison, where (as a prostitute jailed under military law for the suspected murder of a high-ranking officer) her prospects for survival are dim. In hindsight, Bianca's initial wariness regarding the handkerchief seems justified. But the phrase she uses to describe it is peculiar: 367 368Comparative Drama O Cassio, whence came this? This is some token from a newer friend. To the felt absence now I feel a cause. Is't come to this? Well, well. (3.4.174-77) In context we can understand this speech in two ways. Bianca interprets the handkerchief as an incriminating sign, concrete evidence of a woman for whose sake Cassio has been neglecting her ("some token from a newer friend"), but she speaks more truly than she knows. Bianca herself is the latest "cause"—the latest link in the chain—animating the handkerchief's "felt absence ": its paradoxical ability to be at once present, felt, corporeal , yet also somehow absent, elusive, lost. We begin to disentangle the handkerchief's "magic in the web" (3.4.65) once we see that, from a phenomenological perspective, the peculiarity of stage properties is that they both are and are not themselves. Oscillating between sign and thing, props are "felt absences" that draw our attention simultaneously to their signifying function— Bianca's word "token" simply means a sign—and to their materiality ("felt" is of course a particular fabric). Thus the handkerchief is at once a token—a signifier which points to something absent, beyond itself, like Bianca's fictitious minx—and a talisman , an object that possesses (or seems to possess) magical qualities inherently bound up in its "work."4 The handkerchief's double status as sign and thing explains why, as Bert O. States has persuasively argued, we must supplement a purely semiotic approach to stage objects with a phenomenological one in "a kind of binocular vision" that allows us to see them both as signs for something else and as nothing but themselves.5 Following States's lead, I wish to supplement the many accounts of the handkerchief's symbolism with a phenomenological description of its magic. Bracketing the question of whether the handkerchief's magic (or magic in general) exists outside the confines of the playhouse, I shall instead describe how the handkerchief appears to consciousness—both that of the characters and of the audience—as the play unfolds in performance .6 The handkerchief is not merely a sign but a performer in the play's action, and its physical movements and...