THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(4)

OTHELLO(4)

As Desdemona holds the piece of cloth embroidered with the enigmatic symbol of the strawberries to Othello’s forehead in III.3, to soothe him from an ever increasing dread (though he pretends his torment is nothing more than a headache) he immediately tells her: “your napkin is too small.” Turning away from the thing with aversion, its secret cultural meaning and Iago’s relentless suggestions making him vulnerable to an epileptic seizure that Desdemona no doubt interprets as the “sacred disease,” he holds up his hand to stop her.

Immediately after, in a simple but important stage direction, Shakespeare writes: “he puts the handkerchief from him, and she drops it.”5 After the piece of cloth falls to the ground, with Desdemona and Othello exiting, Emilia finds it and, knowing Iago has asked her “a hundred times” to steal it, says: “I am glad I have found this napkin.” The piece of cloth, named three times, is now divided ambiguously between two words; it is, and will remain for crucial reasons, both a handkerchief and a napkin. Shakespeare’s use of two different words establishes a problem of meaning that will only become significant in a decisive scene, with Othello overhearing a brief conversation between Cassio and the “whore” Bianca that precipitates, for the first time, Othello’s murderous fantasies.