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Q: Desdemona's hankerchief ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Desdemona's hankerchief
Category: Arts and Entertainment
Asked by: texasdrew-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 05 Apr 2005 12:43 PDT
Expires: 05 May 2005 12:43 PDT
Question ID: 505376
from The Economist 04-02-05 " In his most poignant and hilarious
chapter, Mr. Pemble shows how Desdemona's handkerchief triggered a
battle for lexical political correctness.  Mouchoir was a word that
well-bred French people couldn't allow themselves to utter or hear in
public.  This one was 'spotted with strawberries', but fraises ranked
lower than mouchoir in the hierarchy of linguistic ill manners.  " 
What does this mean, what is he talking about?
Subject: Re: Desdemona's hankerchief
Answered By: thx1138-ga on 05 Apr 2005 13:46 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello texasdrew and thank you for your question.

The passage you quote is a review of "Shakespeare Goes to Paris How
the Bard Conquered France" by John Pemble (Senior Research Fellow in
History at the University of Bristol, England) and refers to the
difficulty in translating Shakespeare into French because of the
theatrical and cultural differences at the time, and the conflict
between Classical and Romantic theatre.

"The French classical theatre of Racine and Corneille lived by rules
derived from Aristotle?s high-handed ?laws?. The characters, their
passions, thoughts and, above all, language were obliged to observe
strict limits of what was elevated, reasonable and proper."

"The French were so appalled by the vulgarity of Shakespeare?s plays
that it took them 300 years to come near to an accurate translation.
The item of Desdemona?s on which the plot of Othello hinges could not
be mentioned on stage because mouchoir was too coarse a word to be
uttered ? or heard ? in the Comédie Française. It was not until 1829
that Alfred de Vigny first risked the M-word, but that still left the
question of the strawberries with which it was decorated, and fraise
was considered an even lower word. The handkerchief was thus referred
to as being decorated with ?flowers? until well into the 20th century",,2102-1486750,00.html

"Most shockingly of all, he allowed trivial domestic objects ? things
that a classical French author would never dream of mentioning ? to
play a significant role in his plots. Othello turns on a misplaced
handkerchief. A humble mouchoir: quelle horreur"

Also see:

"How great the change was, and what was the nature of the public
opinion against which the Romantics had to fight, may be judged from
the fact that the use of the word 'mouchoir' during a performance of
Othello a few years before 1830 produced a riot in the theatre. To
such a condition of narrowness and futility had the great Classical
tradition sunk at last!"

Thank you for your question, and if you need any clarification of my
answer, do not hesitate to ask before rating my answer.

Very best regards.


Search strategy included:
"the word mouchoir"

Request for Answer Clarification by texasdrew-ga on 05 Apr 2005 14:10 PDT
is "mouchoir" a sanitary napkin?  what about the words "mouchoir &
fraises" is so bad?

Clarification of Answer by thx1138-ga on 05 Apr 2005 14:26 PDT
Hello again texasdrew

Nope, the word 'mouchoir' means 'handkerchief' just like you or I
might carry around in our pocket today.

The point that John Pemble is making, is that in Shakespeare?s day
(1564-1616) in France, theatre had a certain style that was not
supposed to be deviated from.  The play in which Desdemona's
handkerchief features is Othello and it has quite alot to do with the
plot.  In England at the time it was no big deal, but in France for a
handkerchief to have a prominent part in a play was not socially

It seems a strange idea for us today, but in the 16th and 17th
centuries when communication between cultures was not very strong,
these differences were much greater.

Very best regards

texasdrew-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars

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