THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(3)

Rymer himself could never have suspected the urgency of what he dismisses as a “trifle.” When he writes, as if offended or annoyed, “so much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about a Handkerchief,” his invective may have been harsher if he truly understood the extent of the “passion,” so different for Desdemona and Othello, both divided by their respective culture and language. Only by revealing the symbolic importance of the handkerchief/napkin for Othello (and its relation to a complicated ethnicity that has been hidden by modern racial epithets such as “thick lips”) can the full extent of his supposed jealousy and murderous rage become understandable.

Despite his protests, Othello surely does not commit murder out of marital infidelity; and if Iago is to be also comprehensible, much more than simply a “demi-devil” and accused, for example, of Coleridge’s “motiveless malignity,” reasons for his vindictiveness and hatred must be found in his own repeated and insistent self-revelation, and it is not caused by being ignored for professional advancement or the social humiliation of being a cuckold. Iago, he tells us often and truthfully, never cowers behind deceit if one is willing to listen to him with more than “greedy ears.” He may be villainous; but he demands understanding of both his self-possession and his schemes to destroy others.