THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(2)

It has been said that some groups of Gypsies are descendants of Jews. The Gitanos were believed to be descended from Andalusian Moors, or from a mixed race of Jews and Moors.

When the handkerchief/napkin first appears in Act III, scene 3 of Othello, dividing the tragedy in the middle, every major character has already developed a unique relationship to it as well as understood (if privately and, therefore, incompletely) the possible consequences of its cultural meanings. If the handkerchief/napkin remains one of the most fascinating objects in the history of dramatic literature, part of its “wonder” must come from its ability to so compulsively influence, binding everyone towards a tragic end.

The mystery of the “Egyptian” piece of cloth, however, has resisted understanding; it has eluded interpretation, partly hidden by a neglected culture (Moorish, but so much more) its secret preserved by the embroidery of “spotted strawberries” and its relation to an obscure pre-marital ritual. “The meaning of the handkerchief,” Lynda Boose writes, “may well lie hidden in rituals and customs which were accessible to Elizabethans but have since been lost.” Indeed, the meaning of the handkerchief/napkin (for Othello) is inseparable from a unique ritual; it will provoke him as much as the double-meaning of fazzoletto. Its significance has not, however, been lost; it has been consigned to the oblivion of history along with a people long considered pariahs.