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Othello | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Professor Bradley Greenburg of Northeastern Illinois University explains the symbols in William Shakespeare's play Othello.

Othello | Symbols



Desdemona's handkerchief, given to her as a gift from Othello, is a potent symbol of love and trust. Originally it had been Othello's mother's, and his gift of it to Desdemona shows his love for and trust in her. Othello even explains to Desdemona that the handkerchief allowed his mother to make her husband faithful in their marriage. The handkerchief, then, represents fidelity. Because Othello sees great symbolic importance in the handkerchief, Iago has good reason to use it for his own nefarious purposes. When Desdemona accidentally loses it, and Emilia gives it to Iago, Iago controls the symbolism of the handkerchief. He makes this symbol of love and trust into one of unfaithfulness and betrayal. And so Othello is completely undone by the loss of the handkerchief, because it represents the loss of Desdemona; he crumbles into incoherent shouts of "the handkerchief!" as he is overwhelmed by Iago's lies.

Willow Tree

As Desdemona and Emilia prepare for bed, Desdemona shares a "song of 'willow.'" In Shakespeare's plays, willow trees are often associated with the death of women. In Hamlet, Ophelia slips into the stream in which she drowns near a willow tree after being abandoned by Hamlet. The willow tree is here a symbol of Desdemona's sadness and emotion over her lost love, foreshadowing the impending death of this love as well as Desdemona's own physical death. Here, increasingly abandoned by Othello, his faith in her broken, Desdemona sings, "Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve." Desdemona, though innocent, tries to accept the blame for her own death. In addition, the topic of infidelity provides Desdemona a chance to express her belief that nothing, even Othello's betrayal, could make her unfaithful to Othello.

The Color Green

Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy because it is "the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on." Green symbolizes the jealousy that will ultimately undo Othello's marriage, sanity, and life. Iago also uses plant images to explain his own role in the action of the play. He sees the will of a person as the gardener of the body: "Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners."

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