THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(28)

OTHELLO(28)

Her hope, however, is not delusional. She is fully conscious of the possibility that she might die; and a martyr’s death, identifying with Christ and the shroud covering him, provides some solace. “If I do die before thee,” Desdemona tells Emilia, “prithee shroud me/In one of those same sheets.” (IV.3 153-54) Othello is now obsessed with the shedding of blood, its sight mixed with the carnage of military slaughter and the virginity of a torn hymen. He is compelled towards one solution; it must be decisive. He must destroy the representation of his dread. “Thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust’s blood be spotted,” (V.1 158) Othello exclaims, looking at the wounded Cassio but thinking of Desdemona and the implications of Bianca’s lust and the stain of her menstrual blood.

When Othello enters the bedroom where Desdemona is sleeping and utters, while looking at the sheets but seeing the handkerchief/napkin, “it is the cause, it is the cause” (V.2 164) followed immediately by “let me not name it to you,” he alone understand his references. “It is the cause,” the repeats again, obsessively, “Yet I’ll not shed her blood.” (V.2 164) With increasingly erratic and compulsive thoughts, Othello recognizes he cannot shed her blood; the opportunity, prior to marriage, has been missed. It cannot be recovered. When Desdemona wakes up to find him contemplating her murder, she tells him “some bloody passion shakes your very frame,” (V.2 165) and though, for her, the word “bloody” is innocent, a mere metaphor, for Othello it now takes on all the significance that has plagued him since their arrival on Cyprus. He is now fated to an act of murder that he, incredibly but with perfect sense, calls a “sacrifice,” that is, the shedding of blood as a rite of purification. Othello is seduced by a horrific displacement. What is Othello thinking about? With the line “it is the very error of the moon,” (V.2 169) he succumbs, again, to a double meaning grasped as rationalization and explanation, the universe itself manipulating human affairs and the effects of tides. After the important stage direction “He smothers her,” (he suffocates her with the wedding sheets) Othello appears to be referring to the moon that “makes men mad” but he is, in fact, imagining other tides, not of water but of blood. His hallucinations are now, for him, utterly logical. From the shedding of hymen’s blood to the death of a defiler, there is a perfect sequence; the virgin blood annulled by the menstrual blood of a “whore” demands an act of sacrifice to restore purity.