Othello suspects that Desdemona has lost the handkerchief he gave her as a present while they were
He becomes so obsessed with getting her to admit the fact that she is forced to defend herself and can
no longer help Cassio.
COURTING RITUALS & GIFTS
Courtship in medieval times and into the Elizabethan period was a very complex affair, using rituals which
we today would find very strange.
Unmarried men and women were never to be seen alone together. It was too dangerous. The hormonal
drive, then as now, would rouse the couple towards sex but this in turn would lead to pregnancy.
A woman who fell pregnant outside of engagement, however, was a scandal. Indeed, she became a lost
soul because no-one worth his or her salt would associate with her. She was a fallen woman.
Courtship, however, was a secret affair which involved Go-Betweens and clandestine gifts. The couple
would first meet at social events but they would always be in the company of others. They would become
attracted to each another, usually for superficial reasons.
Othello often met Desdemona at dinner functions at her father's house. She became attracted to him
because of his magical stories. He became entranced by her attention to his stories. He was infatuated
by this young Venetian woman.
Remember that he was an aging Moor and would as a rule not be able to captivate anyone such as she.
Indeed, in those days, a Moor would probably seldom even have been in the presence of a young
There would, however, be an immediate problem. Othello could not approach Desdemona openly or
directly. First, it was not considered etiquette to do so. Second, her father would almost certainly have
Then again, what would have happened had Othello approached her but had totally misunderstood the
meaning of her apparent attention? There would be embarrassment, possibly even anger great enough
to cause a social rift.
Elizabethan society had found a way around this delicate issue: the use of Go-Betweens. In Othello's
case, it was Michael Cassio who would approach Desdemona on Othello's behalf, carrying messages,
bearing small gifts and asking the important questions.
There was an advantage to this because it meant that no-one would be publicly embarrassed. Indeed,
the Go-Between could find out things that the would-be suitor could not. For example, was Desdemona
in any way interested in Othello? She could safely tell Cassio, "Yes!" or "No!"
If her answer was "No!", Cassio would relay this to Othello who could give up the quest without his having
been publicly rebuffed. If the answer was "Yes!", then Othello could begin to send little gifts, still using the
Go-Between as messenger.
The courtship would therefore remain a secret, important because it gave the suitor the opportunity to end
the affair without offence and without anyone ever having known what had taken place. There was only
one rule: the suitor had to return all gifts she had given him, although she was allowed to keep all his gifts!
When the courtship had reached an advanced stage, serious gifts were made which acted as official
engagement presents. One of the most common was a blue garter which she would wear on her thigh
at all times, a secret place so no-one would know except her maid-servant with whom she shared all
This is the origin of our quaint although very silly modern tradition where the groom stands his bride on
a chair and removes the garter amidst ribald comments from the guests. In Elizabethan times, of course,
this was to announce that the couple had been engaged without anyone knowing.
Othello appears to have given Desdemona an ornate handkerchief as his engagement gift. This makes
sense in terms of the plot because it is easier for Desdemona to lose a handkerchief than to misplace a
garter which she should have been wearing on her thigh.
This, however, is the reason for Othello's obsession over the handkerchief: it represents their secret
engagement. Losing it would be tantamount to a modern woman carelessly losing her engagement ring.
What happened next? The couple would often then find some secluded bower where they could have
sex. Indeed, it was considered all right for the woman to offer her body once she was engaged.
It was precisely this moment in Othello -- Act 1, Scene 1 -- where Iago finds out about Othello's
secret tryst with Desdemona and he blows the whistle on them.
The woman always ensured that her maid-servant was present to act as a witness. Should she fall
pregnant but the man then got cold feet, the witness would immediately make public his promises and he
would be obliged to marry her.
On the other hand, it was still not too late to break off the engagement provided she was not pregnant
although there had to be a serious reason for doing so. Because the romance was still a secret and
she was not pregnant, nobody would know that she was no longer a virgin.
This ritual did at times go horribly wrong when the Go-Between himself became attached to the woman
and wooed her in his own name.
Iago suggests that Cassio had perhaps done this and had probably therefore had sex with her, and that
Cassio and Desdemona were still having an affair despite her having in the meantime married Othello.
Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?