In A Short View of Tragedy (1693), Thomas Rymer cuttingly asks why Othello was not ‘call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?’ He laments that there is ‘So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief!’ And he wonders how ‘it entered into our Poets head to make a Tragedy of this Trifle’.

An Italian handkerchief

The fine-linen handkerchief shown in this photograph was made in Italy c. 1600, just before Othello was written. It is elaborately decorated with embroidery, needle lace edging and a technique called cutwork, where a delicate web of stitches is created within small spaces cut into the linen.

This fine attention to detail suggests that, as in Othello, the handkerchief had a value which transcended its trifling role as a cloth for wiping a snotty nose. In this period, handkerchiefs had a function that was both private and public. They were displayed as fashionable ornaments or ostentatiously dropped to prompt men gallantly to retrieve them. They were also exchanged symbolically as lovers’ gifts during courtship, and could even be used as evidence of a binding commitment to marriage if betrothal was contested.

The handkerchief in Othello

The handkerchief already plays a pivotal part in the plot of Cinthio’s De Gli Hecatommithi (1565), Shakespeare’s source for Othello. But the playwright heightens its importance, dwelling on the details of its ‘magic’ embroidered ‘web’ (2.1.168; 3.4.69), perhaps suggesting the web-like pattern on a handkerchief like this one. From Act 3, Scene 3 onwards the handkerchief transforms from a ‘[trifle] light as air’ (3.3.322) to a potent symbol. Perhaps part of the shocking force of Shakespeare’s tragedy comes from the ironic contrast between this ‘common thing’ (3.3.302) and its vastly inflated meaning.

The words ‘handkerchief’ (3.4.52; 4.1.37; 5.2.62) and ‘napkin’ (3.3.287), as well as the object itself, are passed with increasing frenzy between Desdemona, Othello, Emilia, Iago, Bianca and Cassio. In the process, the handkerchief becomes a focus for many of the tensions at the heart of the play: Othello’s exotic past and his present life in Venice, ‘ocular proof’ (3.3.360) and misinterpretation, honesty and deception, loving trust and jealousy.