Too Little to Heal the Hurt (3.3.287)
When Othello is finally won over to Iago's interpretation of Desdemona's alleged deceitfulness, his complete mental collapse is not far away. He will try to go through the threefold process of "see, doubt and prove," by demanding "ocular proof (3.3.360)" of her infidelity, but the flood of his emotions will eventually soften that demand to circumstantial evidence and finally, a hearsay description of circumstantial evidence. When the onslaught of a cataclysmic flood of emotions begins to wash over him, Othello is unable to stanch the flow. No resolution or simple declaration of a process to be followed in investigating possible allegations will stand up against the torrent of feelings that submerges him. Jealousy is the emotion that can bring him from the heavens to the steep-down pit of hell in the twinkling of an eye.
But even after he adopts Iago's interpretation of Desdemona's acts, he is not willing to conclude immediately that she is guilty. As Othello says later, he is still of two minds: "By the world,/ I think my wife be honest, and think she is not (3.3.383-384)." In the meantime he will be "on the rack (3.3.335)" for another hundred lines or so while the poison of Iago's "dangerous conceits (3.3.326)" works its gall deeply into his system.
In this connection, Othello's mental state as 3.3 develops similarly to that of Brutus in Julius Caesar after he has joined the conspiracy against Caesar but before the assassination. As Brutus describes it, in one of the more felicitous passages of the play,
"Between the acting [planning] of a dreadful thing/ And the first motion, all the interim is/ Like a phantasma or a hideous dream./....and the state of a man,/ Like to a little kingdom, suffers then/ The nature of an insurrection (JC 2.1.63-69)."
Othello's being "on the rack" is the same feeling as Brutus' internal kingdom suffering an "insurrection" between the planning and effecting of the assassination. It is this that explains the vigorous and apparently hopeless language that Othello speaks in 3.3.267-278. Marriage is a "curse," and it is "the plague of great ones" to be so treated. "'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death" that this "forked tongue" (of the one cuckolded) is "fated to us/ When we do quicken." That is, it is the fate of great ones to wear the horns of the cuckold from the womb. All of life is thus one big act of cuckoldry.
Healing Othello's Headache
Just at this moment Desdemona appears, telling Othello that his dinner guests are waiting for him. Othello responds that he cannot go because of a severe headache. When Desdemona applies her handkerchief to the ache, the handkerchief Othello gave her as a wedding present and a token of the couple's eternal fidelity, the "napkin is too little (3.3.287)." In other words, the handkerchief, carefully sewed by the sybil and possessed of such talismanic power that it would subdue the lover to the beloved, couldn't cover the hurt. The handkerchief's inability to heal the head symbolizes the inability of any token, divine or human, to heal the rift that has now developed between Desdemona and Othello. His mind has been set on a course and even though he has not fully resolved on her destruction, the signs of relational end are there. It is as if a person had developed a deadly cancer but had not died of it. Its poison still was working its way into the system.
And so the handkerchief falls to the ground, is taken up by Emilia, and given to Iago, who will figuratively dangle it before Othello while saying that he has seen Cassio wipe his face with it (3.3.439). But before we leave the handkerchief we should note what Emilia says of it. She is Desdemona's attendant and has seen her with the handkerchief. In a soliloquy before Iago enters she says,
"I am glad I have found this napkin;/ This was her first remembrance from the Moor./ My wayward husband hath a hundred times,/ Woo'd me to steal it; but she so loves the token/ (For he conjur'd her she should ever keep it)/ That she reserves it evermore about her/ To kiss and talk to (3.3.290-296)."
A more touching picture of Desdemona's tender care for this special token cannot be imagined. She loved it so much that she would kiss and talk to it. What would she whisper to the token? No doubt that she would be faithful to its power and promise forever; that she loved the man who gave it to her; that she cherished both gift and giver. The fact that she lost it inadvertently and was unable to produce it when Othello demanded her to do so in 3.4 is one of the poignant moments of the play. The audience almost wants to cry out, as if to help Othello, "Iago has it!" But no further interpretation is needed because the central interpretive moment of the play has already taken place when Othello has said, "I am abus'd, and my relief/ Must be to loathe her (3.3.267-268)."
Iago knows that he has now trapped Othello. He will "in Cassio's lodging lose this napkin,/ and let him find it (3.3.321-322)." Though the handkerchief is a mere "trifle," a thing "light as air," it will be "to the jealous confirmations strong/ As proofs of holy writ (3.3.323-324)." Indeed, as one thinks about it, the case is even easier with the handkerchief, for the reverend doctors must cite the text of scripture to win the point they are making while Iago must only tell Othello that the handkerchief is not in his wife's possession and the case is made.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long