At the center of the plot of Othello lay a lost handkerchief, and on it stitched strawberries.
But why strawberries?
The fruit itself is heart-shaped (or at least it can be), which is kinda neat, but I wouldn’t put too much importance into that.
There is symbolic value. I hadn’t known before researching this topic, but in some traditions, the strawberry symbolizes the Virgin Mary. It has also come to represent purity, perfection, and righteousness. A source from the University of Illinois also states that stone masons in the middle ages would carve strawberries on church and cathedral pillars to represent perfection, but I’ve yet to find any other support for that.
Strawberries are red, however.
And therein lay its importance, I think.
In Othello’s story of the handkerchief’s origin, he states the dye for silk that would become the strawberries came from distilled virgins’ blood (“it was dyed in mummy wich the skillful // Conserved of maidens’ hearts” [III.iv.74-5]).
First, that’s a disturbing mental image. Second, you wouldn’t stitch blueberries with such silk.
But back to blood red…
If the symbols of the pure Virgin Mary were sewn with the blood of mummified virgins, then the handkerchief itself would become a symbol of purity and fidelity… which is exactly what it becomes to Othello.
Such a token of love and symbol of perfection would probably not have any other background color but “pure” white. I’m thinking then that this could become a representation–a micro-version, if you will–of the wedding sheet. Huh? The wedding sheet was a tradition in which the couple displays the blood-spotted sheet after the wedding night to prove the marriage was consummated and that the bride was a virgin (as her broken hymen would, in theory, leave blood stains behind).
Is this a real thing?
I’m hearing only anecdotal references and stories from long ago. Catherine of Aragon, according to legend, used her wedding sheets to prove her marriage to Henry VIII was consummated. I’m also finding age-old references to Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims; but honestly, I’m not sure how much I’m seeing is urban legend and/or not-well-hidden xenophobia.
Interestingly, though, morocco.com–which seems to be some kind of non-official info website for the country–discusses the wedding sheets as a marriage tradition of the past.
So why do I even bring this up? Because Desdemona herself mentions them. In Act Four, Scene Two, after Othello has verbally accosted Desdemona, she says to Emilia, “Prithee tonight // Lay on my bed my wedding sheets” (IV.ii.104-5). It is an important enough request that she emphasizes that Emilia “remember” (IV.ii.105) to do this.
These used wedding sheets might appear like the lost handkerchief, only writ large. Does she think that this might dissuade him? That her blood-stained sheets might prove that she isn’t the “whore” (IV.ii.89) Othello accuses her to be?
But what if the sheets weren’t stained at all?
It’s conceivable that the marriage was never consummated. Their wedding night was interrupted first by Iago, then the meeting at the Duke’s chambers. After his assignment to Cyprus, Othello has “but an hour // Of love, of worldly matters and direction, // To spend with [Desdemona]” (I.iii.298-300). Husband and wife are on different ships to Cyprus. During their first night in Cyprus, Othello sounds like a man who hasn’t bedded his wife yet: “Come, my dear love. // The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; // That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you” (II.iii.8-10). Then their night is interrupted by the brawl in the streets, and while Othello sends Desdemona “away to bed” (II.iii.242), he “[him]self will be [Montano’s] surgeon” (II.iii.243); in other words, he does not follow her to bed. The next morning begins the last temptation of Othello by Iago, and that night is Desdemona’s “tonight.”
Does Othello’s failure to consummate his marriage play a part in his jealousy over Cassio?
It’s something to think about…
Sorry this entry has been so scattered. There’s probably a pretty good basis for a full discussion there somewhere, but this isn’t it.