THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(22)

OTHELLO(22)

The ritual of the Gypsy “test of the handkerchief,” however, was never performed; and that has contributed to the beginning of Othello’s “chaos” and his obsession with blood, with all its associations of race and sadistic warfare, love and uncertain virginity. His fantasies have been raging since their marriage. For Desdemona, the handkerchief/napkin represents both a sacred piece of cloth related to Christ and a fazzoletto, a single word whose importance cannot be overestimated and that Shakespeare (through Iago) makes absolutely crucial especially as the bedroom scene in V.2 approaches and unfolds. How does Iago lead Othello to killing Desdemona on the bed?

When Othello first tells Desdemona about the handkerchief/napkin, he says to her: “that hankerchief/Did an Egyptian to my mother give:/She was a charmer and could almost read the thoughts of people.” (III.4 125) He tries to intimidate her with the superstition of an “Egyptian” (that is, Gypsy sorceress) influencing the handkerchief/napkin with a curse or, worse still, a premonition, making his threat even more ominous when he adds: “to lose or give’t away were such perdition/As nothing could match.” Othello’s own rhetoric is juxtaposing the handkerchief/napkin with virginity, the meaning of “loss” and “give it away” referring to her pre-marital chastity and not the piece of cloth. His thoughts are now private, too threatening to utter directly, leading him on the verge of a mental collapse. He now begins to allow his unrestrained imagination to conjure up devastating images. “There’s magic in the web of it./A sybil, that had numbered in the world/The sun course two hundred compasses,/In her prophetic fury sewed the work.” (III.4 125) The allusion to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso has often been cited as the origin of the line containing “furor profetico,” but the apparent reference to a Roman Sybil and the prediction of the future hides a more telling meaning; it is more significant than seeing the future. Prophecy is irrelevant.