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Othello’s Black Handkerchief



IAN SMITH


The handkerchief in Othello has widely been assumed to be white. This essay challenges the prevailing critical orthodoxy to argue instead for a black handkerchief, based on Othello’s description of the Egyptian marriage token as “dyed in mummy,” a black bituminous substance identified in medieval and early modern medical discourse. As a result, the handkerchief’s black cloth becomes identified with Othello’s body, recalling the stage practice of representing Africans in performance by having actors wear black cloth to mimic black skin. The black handkerchief’s citation of the performance tradition that gave rise to a textile black body reminds audiences of the role the early modern English theater played in the circulation of a material notion of black subjectivity. Finally, the essay speculates about the impact of race on our reading practices that has conditioned critics collectively, and for so long, to see a “white” handkerchief in the play.



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