Hanky is nothing to sneeze at

A piece of cloth plays a critical role in Shakespeare's tragedy 'Othello'

Object Lesson


If Kleenex had existed, the tragedy might not have happened.

The tragedy is Shakespeare's "Othello," and the plot turns on a handkerchief.

The title character gives an heirloom hanky to his bride, Desdemona. She loses this gift. It falls into the wrong hands. Othello becomes convinced his wife is unfaithful, and his jealousy spirals out of control.

Few objects in the Shakespearean canon play as prominent a role as this silk square, "spotted with strawberries" and with "magic in the web of it," according to the script, which mentions the word "handkerchief" almost 30 times. After Desdemona misplaces it, Othello tells her that his mother gave it to him on her deathbed and warned him that "To lose 't or give 't away were such perdition / As nothing else could match."

Michael Kahn, who directed the current production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, suspects Othello makes up the claim that the handkerchief is magic. He told Avery Brooks, who is playing Othello, "You tend to invent exotic material for your own purpose."

Whether or not the hanky has magical powers, it is certainly fraught with meaning. "For [Othello] it clearly represents faithfulness -- so clearly, so clearly -- and a symbol of fidelity and his heart," Kahn says. "It becomes for him a gift, a symbol and then a test. ... Giving it away is like giving up [Desdemona's] person. It's clearly sexual and romantic at the same time." The director instructed the theater's costumers to enlarge the handkerchief's embroidered strawberries (its most blatant sexual symbol); the red berries can now be seen from the back of the theater.

For Norrie Epstein, author of "The Friendly Shakespeare," there's also significance in the fact that the incriminating object, like the evidence itself, is flimsy. "[Othello] thinks if you hold something and it's tangible, it means something," she says. Epstein believes the delicate, almost insubstantial piece of cloth represents not only Othello's jealousy, but also his naivete.

Nor should it be forgotten that handkerchiefs can be used to dry weeping eyes, or as bandages -- two appropriate functions for a bloody tragedy.

Perhaps no one appreciated the handkerchief's importance more than did Margaret Webster. The late actress and director once played the role of Emilia, wife of villainous Iago, who plants the handkerchief in the bedroom of Othello's supposed rival, Cassio.

Webster recalled that at one performance, when it was time for Emilia to find the handkerchief, it was nowhere in sight: "No handkerchief, no play. I couldn't give it to Iago, he couldn't plant it on Cassio, Othello couldn't see Cassio give it to [his mistress] Bianca, Iago couldn't use that to prove Desdemona's guilt -- the whole play fell to pieces like a house of cards."


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