THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(5)

When Desdemona applies the handkerchief/napkin to Othello’s forehead in an obvious gesture of love and solicitude, she cannot possibly imagine his relationship to it; she can neither suspect its first intended use (for her, and no one else) nor its cultural significance for him. On the contrary, her own ambivalent meanings are overwhelming her. On his forehead, the piece of cloth becomes a linteum and sudarium, symbolically representing the soothing of wounds on the scalp of Christ and, therefore, suggesting blood and death, sacrifice and martyrdom.

The handkerchief/napkin in the scene defines both their predicaments; in Desdemona’s case, she cannot reconcile the piece of cloth as simultaneously sacred and sexual, symbol of Christ and her wedding sheets -the fazzoletto, in both cases, absorbing blood. She may have been blessed by a purity of heart, but nowhere does she show any consciousness about the doublemeaning of the handkerchief/napkin in terms of her own cultural history and, more importantly, to the convoluted significance attributed to it by Othello. He has never told her; he has never dared. In Othello’s case, the meaning of the handkerchief/napkin is intimately related to his ethnicity and, more specifically, to a well-known pre-marital ritual practiced by “Moors” that unifies the members of a “tribe.” Despite recent arguments, Othello’s cultural and racial background is far from obvious.