In Othello (1602), the Egyptian’s warning challenges the patriarchal obsession to enforce morality and chastity on women. She infers promiscuity on men by feminising the exotic trope of the cursed object:
Othello: That’s a fault. That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give,
She was a charmer and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept It
‘Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me
And bid me, when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so, and – take heed on’t!
Make it a darling, like your precious eye! –
To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition
As nothing else could match. (III.4, lines 57-69)
The Egyptian transforms the handkerchief into a womb-like space symbolising the impregnated maternal ‘other’. By replicating the intimacy between the mother and her unborn child, a point supported by Emilia’s observation that Desdemona uses the handkerchief ‘To kiss and talk to’ (III.iii, line 300), the handkerchief also creates an unbreakable bond between husband and wife. Othello’s father is faithful because the handkerchief is a symbol of maternal ‘otherness’ or a female authority he finds security with. The implication is that the handkerchief resists patriarchy to uphold Othello’s European identity by representing nurturing and protective parents that patriarchal law cannot guarantee. This is because patriarchal law defines subjects in terms of gender that continuously separates man and woman, a separation which provokes male aggression through the patriarchal desire to control female sexuality.
In a fascinating interpretation that opposes the above, Will Fisher reads the handkerchief as absorbing Desdemona’s ‘bodily excretions’, which prevents her from being the promiscuous “leaky” woman (Fisher 57). For Fisher, the handkerchief is not imbued with exotic power, but is simply a Lady’s accessory symbolising patriarchal power (Fisher 57). He interprets the handkerchief as the phallus or a representation of patriarchal power that stigmatises Desdemona as the female ‘other’, who becomes Othello’s conquest. By finding the handkerchief, this power is arguably transferred to Cassio. Yet, as the phallus, the handkerchief cannot be owned but only copied, as patriarchal power is only given to the cursed object’s current owner.
Although he is married to Desdemona, the handkerchief securely bonds Othello as the exotic ‘other’ to European civility. A point strengthened by Natasha Korda’s striking insight that, because the handkerchief is decorated with strawberries, it also represents an English domestic household object. By citing Lawrence J. Ross to support her argument, Korda acknowledges that ‘the strawberry plant’ is a popular symbol ‘in English domestic embroidery’ (Ross 226 cited Korda 125). She therefore argues that the handkerchief is ‘familiar and domestic’ as well as ‘exoticizing and strange’ (Korda 125). The handkerchief celebrates the union of European civility with the exotic ‘other’, which metaphorically signifies European colonial expansion.
Yet what is little remarked on is how is the Egyptian, as the exotic ‘other’, come to own an object embroided with a popular English symbol? The play appears to reverse what John Gillies terms the ‘epiphenomenon of Renaissance exoticism: the wunderkammer or “wonder-cabinet”’ (Gillies 33). The wunderkammer contains the European’s ‘treasure’, which consists of the unfamiliar objects retrieved from the unknown world. These could be part of an elephant’s tusk or an Indian’s tooth, anything unfamiliar to the European mind. It is tantamount to engagement with the exotic ‘other’, because the exotic ‘other’ speaks back to the Elizabethans through its precious artefacts. The wunderkammer allows the European subject to identify with the strange and wondrous, a process which enhances her/his identity as a sense of completion. The European subject recognises her/his self anew in the gaze of the exotic ‘other’. In Othello, the handkerchief is exoticised by its femininity. Therefore, the exotic and femininity are linked by the handkerchief to create an harmonious space that opposes patriarchal domination.
When Desdemona loses the handkerchief, it is passed through the hands of different people (Emilia, Iago, Cassio and Bianca) so that the handkerchief becomes a strictly European fashion accessory, as its strawberry decoration completely replaces its exotic or, as I have argued, its feminine power. Emilia’s and Cassio’s comments about the handkerchief support this reading. When she first finds the handkerchief, Emilia states that ‘I’ll have the work ta’en out/And give’t Iago’ (III.iii, lines 300-1). Similarly, as he gives her the handkerchief, Cassio tells Bianca to ‘Take me this work out’ (III.iv, line 180). Following editorial glosses, Douglas Bruster interprets these statements to signify that Emilia and Cassio wish to copy the handkerchief’s pattern. He argues that because of the suggestion that the handkerchief can be copied, it explains ‘a rationale for Othello’s anxiety: the fear that he can be replaced sexually’ (Bruster 83). Furthermore, by desiring to copy the handkerchief’s pattern or strawberry decoration, Emilia and Cassio retain its domestic familiarity while excluding its strange exotic power. The copied handkerchief not only replaces Othello sexually but indicates his position of Venetian general and governor of Cyprus, that constitutes his claim to a European identity, are also unstable.
Therefore, once copied, Othello’s exotic handkerchief is set loose in a metonymic chain of deferred ownership. It is detached from its matrixial function by phallic aggression that divides the handkerchief against itself, a reading supported later in the play by Othello changing the story of how he received it: ‘It was a handkerchief, an antique token/My father gave my mother’ (V.ii, lines 214-215). Having just murdered Desdemona, and perhaps even to justify his action, Othello uses the handkerchief as a sign of male conquest. In other words, Desdemona and Othello’s mother become objectified by the handkerchief that Othello and his father own. Instead of representing maternal ‘otherness’, the handkerchief ends up supporting, as Fisher suggests, the patriarchal fantasy of owning and controlling women. The fact that Bianca misrecognises the handkerchief as ‘some minx’s token’ (IV.i, line 147) implies that it has been devalued as a phallic symbol to be used by Iago as proof of Desdemona’s adultery. He provokes in Othello the Early Modern anxiety ‘of Venice as a centre of whoredom and sexual licence’ (Sokol 263). Without its exotic feminine associations, the handkerchief realises the Egyptian’s warning to become a destructive patriarchal symbol exacerbated by the play’s European setting.
Bruster, Douglas. Drama and the market in the age of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Fisher, Will. Materializing Gender in Early modern English Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Gillies, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Korda, Natasha. Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Ross, Lawrence J. ‘The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare’. 1960. Cited in Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama. Natasha Korda. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1602. Ed. E.A.J. Honigmann. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2003.
Sokol, B. J. Shakespeare and Tolerance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.