THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(21)

When Othello, in gratitude and indebtedness, tells Iago “I am bound to thee for ever,” (III.3 112) his plan is already half-complete. He has enslaved him. Being “bound” to Iago merely reflects Iago’s words – experienced and uttered – at the very end of III.3, “I am your own for ever” (III.3 122) that joins both of them to a horrible fate. The experience of slavery binds them together. His echoed words, concludes the long dialogue between Iago and Othello (with the idea of slavery as central) and the appearance of the handkerchief/napkin. Iago has been planning to use it as “proof” of the sexual relationship between Cassio and Desdemona. But even Iago, who knows the significance of the Gypsy premarriage ritual of the “test of the handkerchief,” could not imagine how it would contribute to Othello’s demise.

When Emilia finds the handkerchief/napkin and reveals how “my wayward husband hath a hundred times/Wooed me to steal it,” (III.3 115) she can have no suspicions of his intentions, has no idea of its meaning; all she does, with the duty of a wife, is consider copying its pattern “spotted with strawberries.” “I’ll have the work ta’en out,” she says, words that will be repeated by Bianca and that will, ultimately, be the cause leading Othello to murder. Possessing the handkerchief/napkin now allows Iago to fulfill his plan, however much he overestimates its effects. How does he do it? Placing it in Cassio’s chambers is but the act. Iago clearly recognizes the importance of his plan when he identifies with Othello and Desdemona, that is, imagines their relationship to the “love token,” the separate meanings they invest in it. For Othello, the handkerchief/napkin represents the meaning it has for Gypsy culture and its importance in a pre-marital ritual.