Felt Absences: The Stage Properties of Othello's Handkerchief


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Desdemona's handkerchief makes its first appearance in Shakespeare's source, Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi. According to Cinthio, it is "a handkerchief embroidered most delicately in the Moorish fashion, which the Moor had given her [Disdemona] and which was treasured by the Lady and her husband too."1 Cinthio's handkerchief contains no magic in its web; it is, rather, a crude plot device whose utility depends upon a string of chance events.2 By contrast, there is nothing coincidental in Shakespeare's dramatic embroidering of Cinthio's lurid pulp. In performance, Othello's handkerchief exerts an uncanny power over both characters and audience, and it propels the action as it repeatedly emerges in the right place at the wrong time. It seems almost to bend the characters to its own enigmatic will.

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