THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(25)

OTHELLO(25)

Othello begins to sound incoherent, his words corresponding to fantasies and suspicions, disturbing images that begin to overwhelm him. He does not so much respond to Iago’s double-meaning of “lie” (“with her, on her, what you will”) coupling mendacity with sexual betrayal, but with a more astonishing image, his imagination now virtually creating hallucinations. Othello speaks as though the handkerchief/napkin has penetrated Desdemona. When Othello utters the words “handkerchief – confession – handkerchief,” he is imagining the piece of cloth has committed an unspeakable act, as if the handkerchief/napkin is an animistic object capable of sexual desire and moral outrage, contrition and confession after the act. Sensing the onset of another epileptic seizure but unable to stop, he makes one final appeal (to himself, to his reason) when he refuses to acknowledge Iago’s influence on him and, instead, turns his attention to the handkerchief/napkin. Only his force of will allows him to resist, if only feebly.

“It is not words that shakes me thus! Pish!/Noses, ears, and lips! Is’t possible? -Confess? Handkerchief! O devil.” (IV.1 133) Othello collapses, but not before denying Iago’s influence on him (words alone, he says, cannot reduce me to this) while simultaneously succumbing to an even more threatening fantasy of betrayal and defilement, the handkerchief/napkin now becoming something other than its use for proper body parts, more than its proximity to ears and noses and lips. He collapses, the images so overwhelming he can no longer sustain them, consciousness itself shattered. Iago believes his plan, which he calls “my medicine,” has worked; he is, however, overestimating himself. The final, insupportable scene is almost accidental, significant only to someone whose imagination has exceeded all the bounds of restraint. Othello’s perceptions (of sound and sight) are now overwhelming him.