I am glad I have found this napkin.
This was her first remembrance from the Moor,
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed me to steal it, but she so loves the token—
For he conjured her she should ever keep it—
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I’ll ha’ the work ta’en out,
And give’t Iago. What he will do with it,
Heaven knows, not I.
I nothing, but to please his fantasy. (III.iii.294–303)
This speech of Emilia’s announces the beginning of Othello’s “handkerchief plot,” a seemingly insignificant event—the dropping of a handkerchief—that becomes the means by which Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Roderigo, Emilia, and even Iago himself are completely undone. Before Othello lets the handkerchief fall from his brow, we have neither heard of nor seen it. The primary function of Emilia’s speech is to explain the prop’s importance: as the first gift Othello gave Desdemona, it represents their oldest and purest feelings for one another.
While the fact that Iago “hath a hundred times / Wooed me to steal it” immediately tips off the audience to the handkerchief’s imminently prominent place in the tragic sequence of events, Emilia seems entirely unsuspicious. To her, the handkerchief is literally a trifle, “light as air,” and this is perhaps why she remains silent about the handkerchief’s whereabouts even when Desdemona begins to suffer for its absence. It is as though Emilia cannot, or refuses to, imagine that her husband would want the handkerchief for any devious reason. Many critics have found Emilia’s silence about the handkerchief—and in fact the entire handkerchief plot—a great implausibility, and it is hard to disagree with this up to a point. At the same time, however, it serves as yet another instance in which Iago has the extraordinary power to make those around him see only what they want to see, and thereby not suspect what is obviously suspicious.