Othello, a tragedy by Shakespeare, can be likened to a modern day soap opera or murder drama. All the elements are there: deceit, jealousy, passions, and more. But one mysterious element runs through this play -- the handkerchief. All throughout history, the handkerchief holds significance in many ways, from the time of Christ to the modern day.
Handkerchiefs were thought to have spiritual powers, starting when the woman in the Bible just touched Christ's garment and was healed, to Oral Roberts and his prayer cloths. The first incidence of the use of prayer cloths dates back to the early 19th century when the Mormons used healing handkerchiefs. "Historian Michael Quinn writes that a group of people asked Joseph Smith to come heal them. Smith couldn't go but he pulled a red silk handkerchief out of his pocket and he said to one of his evangelists, 'You go and take my handkerchief.' And the evangelist took the handkerchief and prayed and the people were healed." (http://www.materialreligion.org/journal/handkerchief.html)
Handkerchiefs were also used in Greek dances. They would dance in formations, hold their bodies straight, and wave objects, such as handkerchiefs while dancing. One speculation as to the symbolism might be that they are waving them to get rid of the evil spirits, giving authenticity to Othello's ideas that the handkerchief he had given to Desdemona did actually have magical powers.
Also, I wanted to explain what courtesans were back then, to set the environment of this story. It is interesting to note that the definition of a Courtesan is essentially, a prostitute. That was the basic role they played, but they were much more than that. A courtesan was placed in a higher status and role than the prostitute. The prostitute, back at the time of this play, was defined as a slave in a brothel, owned by a man, who did not get paid and were used however the owner saw fit. They also were not allowed to leave the brothel, or be seen at any social function.
Courtesans, on the other hand, had breeding, education, and culture. They could be seen with men at social functions, and were in charge of their own lives. They charged customers much more than a prostitute could, as she was in business for herself. Courtesans were respected more than a prostitute, but not more than a woman of higher social and economic status. For example, since these women had breeding and culture, they often got mistaken for women of higher social class. It was for this reason that laws were written about how a courtesan should dress and behave. Look at this quote from the Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance, by Georgina Masson:
This identity crisis became such a problem in Venice that the authorities found it necessary to issue sumptuary laws. Masson writes that these laws:
specifically stated that it was a public shame that prostitutes were to be seen in the streets and churches, and elsewhere, so much bejeweled and well-dressed, that very often noble ladies and women citizens [of Venice], because there is no difference in their attire from that of the above-said women, are confused with them; not only by foreigners, but by the inhabitants [of Venice], who are unable to tell the good from the bad...therefore it is proclaimed that no prostitute may wear, nor have on any part of her person, gold, silver or silk, nor wear necklaces, pearls or jeweled or plain rings, either in their ears or on their hands.(152)"
At this point in history, prostitution and courtesans were the one area of commerce that was not exclusively in the hands of men. Back then, this profession did not have the stigma is does today, and they had a certain degree of respect and were taken out to parties and other social events by their customers. But most natives to a particular country would not engage in this profession, even though it gave great riches. The foreign ladies came in to uphold this profession.
From there, we go into the analysis of the importance of the handkerchief throughout the tragedy of Othello. Othello was an honored military hero, and Iago was a veteran officer serving under him. But instead of being appointed as lieutenant, Othello chose Cassio, a much younger man, as his lieutenant. Also, Roderigo was to marry Desdemona, but Othello married her instead. Iago plotted with Roderigo to destroy Othello, as a means of revenge. He was Iago's pawn in a very deceptive scheme. Iago decides to use Cassio as his tool for revenge, and reassures Roderigo that once Othello is out of the way, he would be free to marry Desdemona.
As part of the revenge plot, Iago tells Roderigo to incite Cassio to a fight, because if he fights on duty, he would be dismissed. So, at a social function one night, Iago persuades Cassio to get drunk. Then, because of his intoxicated state, fought with Roderigo. Othello caught this and dismissed Cassio.
Depressed about this, Cassio goes to Iago for help. As part of his plot, he tells Cassio that he will have Desdemona speak on Cassio's behalf and have him reinstated. Cassio talks with Desdemona, then leaves quickly as Othello and Iago come in. Iago begins planting the seeds of distrust, saying that they must have been doing something wrong, if Cassio left like that.
Othello gave Desdemona a handkerchief on their honeymoon as a symbol of love, as it had belonged to his mother. Being a family heirloom, this act shows that the handkerchief had sentimental value. A wedding ring would be an equal symbol today. But Othello puts more value on this handkerchief than is healthy, and sees it is literally Desdemona's love for him.
But the problem is that Desdemona loses this gift of love and becomes frantic while searching for it, because she doesn't want Othello to be upset about her carelessness. (Iago capitalizes on this, by planting the "evidence" in Cassio's quarters.) She had no idea, however, how upset he would become. Many times today, when someone loses a wedding ring, they also get frantic looking for it. So, we can understand why Desdemona feels bad and regretful for losing it. Unfortunately, Emilia, Iago's wife, finds the handkerchief, knows her husband wants it, and takes it for him. She doesn't see this as bad, however, and never reveals her role in the plot to destroy Othello. (Some sources suggest that she doesn't really know of Iago's deceitful plot.)
Meanwhile, Iago plants seeds of doubt in Othello's mind about the fidelity of his wife and the honesty of Cassio. He keeps saying that Cassio is enamored with Desdemona, he has seen them together, talking and laughing, like lovers, and have heard him talking in his sleep about her. When Othello learns that she has lost the handkerchief, he starts believing what Iago told him. Because he sees it as a symbol of love for him, he naturally believes this to be a betrayal to him. He begins to get jealous, and loses part of his good spirit and confidence.
Desdemona doesn't see Othello as one to get jealous or angry just because she lost the handkerchief. What good would that do? She still loved him and hadn't betrayed him. Why would he get so mad? However, when he gets home, he lectures her on the importance of that handkerchief. "It is a symbol of our love, and you lost it. Therefore you lost your love for me..." "The handkerchief has special magical powers..." Although in the beginning, he denied he believed in magic, Brabantio accused him of putting Desdemona under his spell, so that she would marry him. Desdemona denied this as well, saying that her love was genuine. He lectures her so much, that she wishes she had never lost it, and that she had never been given such a precious gift.
Bianca, a courtesan, sees the handkerchief with Cassio and accuses him of having an affair with Desdemona. (Cassio and Bianca are actually lovers, and she originally came to see him, because he hadn't been calling on her lately. She didn't know that he had Desdemona's handkerchief until she got there.) He didn't know the handkerchief is Desdemona's and gets angry at the accusations. He, of course, is not having an affair with Desdemona, and wonders why she is accusing him of such a thing. Bianca doesn't seem to care that he is angry, takes the handkerchief, and goes about her business.
Contrary to what Othello believes, Desdemona has not lost her love for him and has never had an affair with Cassio. Just because she lost the handkerchief, doesn't mean that she has betrayed him. Some couples today acts the same way when one loses a wedding ring. It seems so silly how one places so much importance on one little thing.
All throughout the play, Desdemona insists she and Cassio did not have an affair. Desdemona tries with everything in her to persuade…