Once again Shakespeare critic par excellence, Harold Goddard, provides a unique observation about Shakespeare. The play is Othello and the question is “why did Desdemona carelessly misplace the cherished handkerchief Othello gave her?” But Goddard doesn’t answer the question; instead, he questions its premise:
Things are lost through carelessness or genuine accident — and the dropping of the handkerchief came about through neither of these. The truth, as contrasted with the fact, of the matter is that neither Desdemona, nor accident, nor Fate, dropped the handkerchief. Othello dropped it.
I have read Othello a dozen times, seen it performed a half-dozen times and have always assumed that Desdemona misplaced the handkerchief. After reading Goddard and re-reading Othello, I realize that in past readings I made the mistake most careless readers make: I assumed that Othello’s “truth” is the truth. It is anything but. In effect, Iago not only dupes Othello; he dupes Othello‘s readers.
Goddard cites the following exchange between Othello and Desdemona as proof that Othello and not Desdemona dropped the handkerchief:
DESDEMONA: Why do you speak so faintly?
Are you not well?
OTHELLO: I have a pain upon my forehead here.
DESDEMONA: Faith, that’s with watching; ’twill away again:
Let me but bind it hard, within this hour
It will be well.
OTHELLO: Your napkin is too little:
(He puts the handkerchief from him; and it drops)
Let it alone. Come, I’ll go in with you.
DESDEMONA: I am very sorry that you are not well.
The “it” in “let it alone,” Goddard says, refers not to the handkerchief but to Othello’s aching forehead.
All of this seems clear enough, especially when you consider Shakespeare’s stage direction – He puts the handkerchief from him; and it drops - telling us that Othello and not Desdemona dropped the napkin. So why do I and so many other readers assume that Desdemona lost the handkerchief? Because Othello says she did:
OTHELLO: I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me;
Lend me thy handkerchief.
DESDEMONA: Here, my lord.
OTHELLO: That which I gave you.
DESDEMONA: I have it not about me.
DESDEMONA: No, indeed, my lord.
OTHELLO: That is a fault.
But does it really matter that Othello and not Desdemona dropped the handkerchief? Well, it does if you are a playwright who wants to depict a man provoked into an utterly irrational jealousy. In order to do this, Shakespeare must make Desdemona guiltless. She must be a paragon of the loyal and loving wife. A Saint, if you will.¹
Othello’s end is more tragic when we have a spotless Desdemona. His pain is more intense and real because he recognizes that “like the ‘base Indian'” he “threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe.”
So what does Shakespeare do to keep Desdemona pure? He has her “neglect” the handkerchief only because she cares more for her husband’s health. “I am very sorry that you are not well,” Desdemona says after Othello drops the napkin. The well-directed actress playing Desdemona will not even look at the handkerchief as it falls to the ground. Her gaze must at all times be fixed on her ill husband. She is in vicarious pain; empathizing to the extreme with Othello’s suffering. She suffers because the man she loves suffers. In short, Desdemona does what Saint’s do.
Iago’s hypnosis of Othello is magnitudes more skillful (and demonic) because Desdemona has done nothing to justify her husband’s distrust. A lesser Machiavel than Iago could convince a man that his wife had been unfaithful to him when that wife had previously engaged in acts that could be construed as infidelity. Here, despite Desdemona having shown no overt signs of betrayal, Iago convinces Othello that his wife is a whore whom he must kill “else she’ll betray more men.” This, folks, is no ordinary villain.²
¹ Although a Desdemona who is careless with a love token would not necessarily be unfaithful or disloyal to her husband, the carelessness creates in the reader a modicum of doubt as to the depth of her love for Othello. Shakespeare, Goddard shows us, attempted in the lost-handkerchief scene to remove all doubt in the reader that Desdemona loved her husband. That I and many other readers of Othello have assumed that Desdemona was careless with the handkerchief shows that Shakespeare wrote for the stage. When reading the lost-handkerchief scene it is not as clear that Desdemona did not drop the napkin as it is when watching a properly acted stage presentation of the scene.
² Iago, with the possible exception of Hamlet, is the greatest intellect in all of Shakespeare. But Hamlet bends his intellect toward the good and it has the tragic consequence of resulting in bad. Iago, on the other hand, wants to do bad and commissions his formidable intellect to that end.