What difference does the color of a handkerchief make in one of Shakespeare’s plays?
A great deal, as it turns out.
In the article “Othello’s Black Handkerchief” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Ian Smith, professor of English, challenges the common assumption that the handkerchief in Othello is white, contending that textual clues in the play indicate that the prop is, in fact, black.
“Among critics, the handkerchief has been regarded as a unifying motif for the dramatic action,” he says. “Thus changing or challenging our commonly held perceptions about this most famous of all early modern stage properties requires some intellectual adjustment on the part of readers and, hopefully, audiences.”
Smith focuses on Othello’s description of the handkerchief as “dyed in mummy,” arguing that “mummy” is a black substance associated with Africa—especially Egypt—and early modern medicine. The handkerchief’s black textile becomes identified with Othello’s body, recalling the early modern stage practice of actors wearing black cloth to mimic black skin when portraying Africans. Also, Smith points out, it is “dyed,” and one rarely dyes anything white.
The long-held belief that the handkerchief is white speaks to how cultural conditioning and education have shaped reading practices.
“Much more is at stake than merely disturbing settled expectations and viewing habits. Othello has emerged as the Shakespeare play of this generation as Hamlet and King Lear have been for earlier periods in the 20th century,” says Smith. “That is because Othello speaks powerfully to our modern concerns with a host of issues ranging from miscegenation, immigration, and colonialism, all related in some way to the issue of race.”
Viewing the play in the context of a white handkerchief may be a subconscious decision, but it is not an entirely innocent one, says Smith. The white handkerchief orients reader interest toward Desdemona, Othello’s Venetian (and white) wife. The black handkerchief reaffirms the play’s interest in the black character Othello while forcing readers to question the implications of this alternate reading.
“The critical success of a white handkerchief results in an unstated yet crucial effect of highlighting whiteness at the expense of blackness in ways that appear as natural and inevitable as the selection of the handkerchief’s white color,” explains Smith. “There is nothing natural or inevitable about this shift in racial focus, and one of the goals of my essay is to call attention to the impact of racial habits on critical practice and tradition.”
While Smith is eager to share his findings with his students, he has been focusing classroom study of Othello around another project he is working on involving the play’s comedic elements. Pat Donahue, professor of English, has introduced the issue of the handkerchief’s color in her classes with success.
“We can look forward to a new generation of even more curious Lafayette readers of Shakespeare,” says Smith. “In my experience, getting students to engage discussions of race in Shakespeare has been rewarding; students listen to and judge the arguments on their merit and generally embrace the trajectories that follow with enthusiasm and insight.”
This spring, Smith gave a special lecture on his findings at Skillman Library. He also collaborated with Curlee Holton, professor and head of art, on an artist’s book, Othello Re-imagined in Sepia, which was on view following the lecture. Comprised of Holton’s prints and Smith’s text, the book is a series of 10 images re-imagining Othello in the context of contemporary awareness of issues of race, identity, and culture.
Holton used Berrisford Boothe ’83, an internationally renowned painter, printmaker, and installation artist, as his model for the drawings. The book was given to Skillman Library by an anonymous donor.