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William Shakespeare


Act 3, Scene 4
lines 46 - 103
Othello demands to see the handkerchief!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 22 January 2014
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Othello suspects that Desdemona has lost the handkerchief he gave her as a present while they were courting.

He becomes so obsessed with getting her to admit the fact that she is forced to defend herself and can no longer help Cassio.


Courtship in medieval times and into the Elizabethan period was a very complex affair, using rituals which we today would find very strange.

Unmarried men and women were never to be seen alone together. It was too dangerous. The hormonal drive, then as now, would rouse the couple towards sex but this in turn would lead to pregnancy.

A woman who fell pregnant outside of engagement, however, was a scandal. Indeed, she became a lost soul because no-one worth his or her salt would associate with her. She was a fallen woman.

Courtship, however, was a secret affair which involved Go-Betweens and clandestine gifts. The couple would first meet at social events but they would always be in the company of others. They would become attracted to each another, usually for superficial reasons.

Othello often met Desdemona at dinner functions at her father's house. She became attracted to him because of his magical stories. He became entranced by her attention to his stories. He was infatuated by this young Venetian woman.

Remember that he was an aging Moor and would as a rule not be able to captivate anyone such as she. Indeed, in those days, a Moor would probably seldom even have been in the presence of a young Venetian woman.

There would, however, be an immediate problem. Othello could not approach Desdemona openly or directly. First, it was not considered etiquette to do so. Second, her father would almost certainly have disapproved.

Then again, what would have happened had Othello approached her but had totally misunderstood the meaning of her apparent attention? There would be embarrassment, possibly even anger great enough to cause a social rift.

Elizabethan society had found a way around this delicate issue: the use of Go-Betweens. In Othello's case, it was Michael Cassio who would approach Desdemona on Othello's behalf, carrying messages, bearing small gifts and asking the important questions.

There was an advantage to this because it meant that no-one would be publicly embarrassed. Indeed, the Go-Between could find out things that the would-be suitor could not. For example, was Desdemona in any way interested in Othello? She could safely tell Cassio, "Yes!" or "No!"

If her answer was "No!", Cassio would relay this to Othello who could give up the quest without his having been publicly rebuffed. If the answer was "Yes!", then Othello could begin to send little gifts, still using the Go-Between as messenger.

The courtship would therefore remain a secret, important because it gave the suitor the opportunity to end the affair without offence and without anyone ever having known what had taken place. There was only one rule: the suitor had to return all gifts she had given him, although she was allowed to keep all his gifts!

When the courtship had reached an advanced stage, serious gifts were made which acted as official engagement presents. One of the most common was a blue garter which she would wear on her thigh at all times, a secret place so no-one would know except her maid-servant with whom she shared all secrets.

This is the origin of our quaint although very silly modern tradition where the groom stands his bride on a chair and removes the garter amidst ribald comments from the guests. In Elizabethan times, of course, this was to announce that the couple had been engaged without anyone knowing.

Othello appears to have given Desdemona an ornate handkerchief as his engagement gift. This makes sense in terms of the plot because it is easier for Desdemona to lose a handkerchief than to misplace a garter which she should have been wearing on her thigh.

This, however, is the reason for Othello's obsession over the handkerchief: it represents their secret engagement. Losing it would be tantamount to a modern woman carelessly losing her engagement ring.

What happened next? The couple would often then find some secluded bower where they could have sex. Indeed, it was considered all right for the woman to offer her body once she was engaged.

It was precisely this moment in Othello -- Act 1, Scene 1 -- where Iago finds out about Othello's secret tryst with Desdemona and he blows the whistle on them.

The woman always ensured that her maid-servant was present to act as a witness. Should she fall pregnant but the man then got cold feet, the witness would immediately make public his promises and he would be obliged to marry her.

On the other hand, it was still not too late to break off the engagement provided she was not pregnant although there had to be a serious reason for doing so. Because the romance was still a secret and she was not pregnant, nobody would know that she was no longer a virgin.

This ritual did at times go horribly wrong when the Go-Between himself became attached to the woman and wooed her in his own name.

Iago suggests that Cassio had perhaps done this and had probably therefore had sex with her, and that Cassio and Desdemona were still having an affair despite her having in the meantime married Othello.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me;
Lend me thy handkerchief."
  • Does Othello genuinely need Desdemona's handkerchief? Explain. (4)

[Need help?]

"That is 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 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."
  • Do you believe Othello's story? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is Desdemona's response to it? (4)

[Need help?]

"Is't lost? is't gone? speak, is it out o' the way?"
  • If you were Desdemona, how would you interpret these words? (4)

[Need help?]

"Fetch me the handkerchief: my mind misgives."
  • Othello's fixation on the handkerchief and Desdemona's fixation on Cassio does not auger well for her. Why? (4)

[Need help?]

DESDEMONA: "I'faith, you are to blame."
OTHELLO: "Zounds!"
  • Why would Desdemona's words elicit such a violent response from Othello? (4)

[Need help?]

"'Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us."
  • Explain Emilia's criticism of men. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does she say, "'Tis not a year or two shows us a man." (2)

[Need help?]

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