THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(27)

Shakespeare’s knowledge of the Italian language has been a source of controversy since Richard Farmer’s 1767 An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare. Without, here, presenting any arguments about his ability to at least read the language, Shakespeare was certainly aware of the writings of John Florio. In addition to writing manuals of Italian conversation for the nobility at the court of Elizabeth, Florio published an Italian-English dictionary (the 1598 A Worlde of Wordes) that Shakespeare knew about and, perhaps, even owned. In any case, he surely read two consecutive entries in the dictionary – fazzo and fazzoletto30 – that allowed Shakespeare (through Iago) to manipulate Desdemona’s association with the cultural meaning of the piece of cloth and its relationship to bed sheets. By interpreting the translated word as a compound, as a fazzo letto, Iago’s knowledge intertwines the handkerchief/napkin with their bed.

The handkerchief/napkin becomes, literally, a “false bed.” Desdemona, who has realized the relationship of the “love token” and her wedding sheets from the beginning of her marriage, now makes one last attempt to convince Othello of her love and fidelity. Her act, however, will create the conditions for her tragic death. She will die smothered by wedding sheets representing the handkerchief/napkin, both pieces of cloth symbolically intertwined. By making one last effort to convince Othello of her love and fidelity, Desdemona precipitates the final apotheosis. When she instructs Emilia to “lay on my bed my wedding sheets,” (IV.2 147) she hopes that Othello will see them as proof of her love and of the sanctity of their marriage.