THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(24)

In Gypsy culture, there is an important formal ceremony that precedes the official consummation of the marriage, providing “ocular proof’ of the bride’s virginity. “The young girls must be virgins when marrying, and this is checked before the couple is declared husband and wife. This virginity test is the central and most sacred part of the ceremony.” Matrons are entrusted with the ritual and, after insuring the bride-to-be is a virgin, they then “take round the handkerchief stained with the blood of the young wife.” Othello’s “dangerous conceits” are essentially related to the symbolic meaning of the pattern of strawberries on the handkerchief/napkin and how Desdemona did not participate in the ritual before their marriage. His “chaos” began prior to Iago’s schemes. Her virginity was never proven, never acknowledged. Without proof of her virginity, blood of her hymen on the handkerchief, he is culturally destitute. The omission of the ritual leaves Othello utterly severed from his community; he is forlorn, absolutely. But there is more. One finally scene compels him to murder. How does it happen?

The omission of the Gypsy pre-marital ritual has only made him more susceptible to Iago’s insinuations; he now begins to be overwhelmed by perceptions which are more and more distorted, where appearances reflect the derangement of his consciousness. Othello is moribund. He is led from an intolerable suspicion to an incident worse than proof, confirming all his aversion to the dangers of “pollution” and defilement known in Gypsy culture as mehrime. He can no longer restrain the consequences of disturbed fantasies; his hallucinations lead him to an ever more harrowing assumption. What happens? What does he think he sees that so overwhelms him, turning dread and confusion, finally, to murderous fantasies?