Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Handkerchief

The handkerchief symbolizes different things to different characters. Since the handkerchief was the first gift Desdemona received from Othello, she keeps it about her constantly as a symbol of Othello’s love. Iago manipulates the handkerchief so that Othello comes to see it as a symbol of Desdemona herself—her faith and chastity. By taking possession of it, he is able to convert it into evidence of her infidelity. But the handkerchief’s importance to Iago and Desdemona derives from its importance to Othello himself. He tells Desdemona that it was woven by a 200-year-old sibyl, or female prophet, using silk from sacred worms and dye extracted from the hearts of mummified virgins. Othello claims that his mother used it to keep his father faithful to her, so, to him, the handkerchief represents marital fidelity. The pattern of strawberries (dyed with virgins’ blood) on a white background strongly suggests the bloodstains left on the sheets on a virgin’s wedding night, so the handkerchief implicitly suggests a guarantee of virginity as well as fidelity.

The Song “Willow”

As she prepares for bed in Act V, Desdemona sings a song about a woman who is betrayed by her lover. She was taught the song by her mother’s maid, Barbary, who suffered a misfortune similar to that of the woman in the song; she even died singing “Willow.” The song’s lyrics suggest that both men and women are unfaithful to one another. To Desdemona, the song seems to represent a melancholy and resigned acceptance of her alienation from Othello’s affections, and singing it leads her to question Emilia about the nature and practice of infidelity.

The Candle

Just before murdering Desdemona, Othello ponders the candle he has brought with him, comparing it symbolically to Desdemona’s life. He states that he will extinguish it before extinguishing Desdemona’s “light,” or in other words, killing her. Comparing the murder to snuffing out a candle highlights how fragile Desdemona’s life is at this moment, and how easily lost. However, Othello acknowledges that while he could always light the candle again if he regrets extinguishing it, nothing will be able to revive Desdemona once he kills her. Some scholars read additional meaning into Othello deciding to blow out the candle before murdering Desdemona. Light often signifies truth and wisdom, and so extinguishing it emphasizes Othello’s unwillingness to see the reality of Desdemona’s innocence. Related to this reading, putting out the candle brings to mind Iago’s influence. Throughout the play, Iago and his terrible deeds have been associated with darkness, as in his “play the villain” soliloquy where he describes undertaking the “blackest sins.” Thus, putting out the candle may also signify Iago’s complete manipulation of Othello.