THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(1)

OTHELLO(1)

Since Thomas Rymer’s comments on the handkerchief in Othello, unable to recognize its meaning and therefore dismissing its “passion,” the piece of cloth has remained both a fascinating and incomprehensible object – its cultural meaning (perhaps known by Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience) as neglected and mistaken as the true ethnic identity of Othello himself. Shakespeare, however, has given the audience/reader several indications of the meaning of the handkerchief, its description (i.e. Egyptian, embroidered with spotted strawberries) related both to Othello’s ethnicity and to a particular premarital ritual practiced by a people sometimes, if deceptively, called Moors; important remains Othello’s origins and his experience prior to arriving in Venice.

Once the handkerchief (fazzoletto in Italian) becomes understood as necessary as a crucial pre-marital ritual – one first intended to check Desdemona’s virginity, as in the Gypsy “test of the handkerchief’ – then Othello’s murderous rage and his concealed ethnicity becomes interrelated and provides insights into the meaning of the tragedy. Finally, since Shakespeare surely knew of John Florio’s 1598 A World of Wordes (an Italian-English dictionary) he was able to read two consecutive entries in the dictionary, fazzoand fazzoletto, that allowed Iago to manipulate Desdemona’s association with the cultural meaning of the piece of cloth and its relationship to bed sheets.