THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(17)

When Desdemona’s testimony exonerates Othello from the accusation of sorcery, Iago’s first plan has failed. Othello’s military heroism makes him an obvious choice to lead Venetian ships to counter the Ottoman fleet and their attack of Cyprus. Iago will “abuse Othello’s ear” and prepare a scheme that will destroy him. When he sarcastically exclaims “happiness to their sheets,” (II.3 89) even before their arrival on Cyprus, parenthetically the island where the goddess Venus was born, Iago has already devised a plan; he recognizes the relationship between the handkerchief/napkin and the wedding sheets Desdemona has prepared for her married life with Othello. But not even Iago could have imagined the success of his plan. How does Othello turn from a loving husband to an enraged murderer (David Bevington rightly calls this the “puzzle”23 of the tragedy) without simply recognizing Iago’s abilities to manipulate with words and a simple piece of cloth?

In III., with intimations of Othello’s “chaos” but prior to the appearance of the handkerchief/napkin, when Iago’s echoing repetitions combine to lead Othello into an ever-growing suspicion of infidelity and sexual betrayal, he tries to balance the doubt about Desdemona with reflective judgment, first and foremost, about Iago’s character. Throughout his formidable insinuations, Othello resists the temptation to believe, struggles against his own inclinations and the ambiguity of emotions he already experiences. He has doubts, unanswered question; but they are independent of Iago’s meddling. Despite telling Iago, again and again – as if the repetitions were warnings to himself, the insistence itself indicative of other suspicions – that he trusts his “love and honesty,” Othello also says: “these stops of thine affright me more:/For such things in a false disloyal knave/Are tricks of custom.”