THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(26)

When he recovers from his second epileptic seizure and overhears a conversation between Cassio and Bianca, he listens intently, but he misinterprets her words according to pre-conceptions that have already driven him to despair. When he hears Bianca telling Cassio that she refuses, three times, to “take out the work,” the tone of her voice mocking and defiant, Othello does not understand her words as a refusal to copy the embroidered pattern of the spotted strawberries. For him, the “work” is a stain; the “work” to be “taken out” is blood. Of all the social rules governing Gypsy impurity and taboo, “the most important one is the idea of feminine impurity that is related to blood taboo”29 and, of course, especially to menstruation. Othello is horrified. Bianca has, in his mind, used the piece of cloth as a “napkin” for her menstruation; and her jealous anger makes her refuse to wash it. She seems to taunt Cassio with the stained napkin.

Bianca’s menstrual blood has defiled the handkerchief/napkin and now, for the first time, Othello mentions killing Desdemona. The piece of cloth first intended for the Gypsy “test of the handkerchief,” the ritual ensuring Desdemona’s virginity, has been used by Bianca (out of spite and jealousy) for her menstrual blood, thereby turning a ritual object into a polluted thing. The act of “pollution” devastates Othello to such an extent that he imagines killing Desdemona, sees himself “chop her into messes” with his Spanish sword, symbol of his roots. It is Iago, however, who tells him (for a precise reason) to kill her in bed. “Strangle her in her bed,” Iago tells him, “even/the bed she hath contaminated.” (IV.1 139) Using the word “contaminated” with almost uncanny intuition, Iago now leads Othello to murder Desdemona on the very bed he has created. How did Iago create the bed? How will he contradict Desdemona’s own relationship to the bed and the wedding sheets? Iago has always understood the handkerchief/napkin (like her) as a fazzoletto, a word surely known to Shakespeare, a word whose extraordinary significance has been used by Iago, from first to last, as his brilliant trope.