THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(13)

OTHELLO(13)

The sequence of dialogues (beginning with Iago’s discourse on slavery) now culminates with a detailed description of Othello’s Gypsy heritage, its association to sorcery and, equally as important, the enigmatic meaning of the “black” colour of his skin. With the entrance of Brabantio and the officers of the law in I.2, the confrontation is remarkable for the accusations made against Othello, all of them specific, each related to his ethnicity and leading to a crucial ending of the scene. How does it begin? Again, as if Shakespeare makes a virtual list of the ethnic characteristics of Othello to his Elizabethan audience, the ethnological references are exhaustive and include, in this scene and throughout the play, the Gypsy origin of the handkerchief/napkin, sorcery, skin-colour, paganism and, finally, slavery.

In his first charge, Brabantio accuses Othello of enchanting his daughter, of using “magic” and “foul charms,” “drugs and minerals,” of being “a practicser/Of arts inhibited.” (I.2 61) Shakespeare’s allusions to the Moor’s ethnic origins are intended specifically for his contemporaries; they would have understood that Othello is a Gypsy, beginning with the common assumption and prejudice of the practice of sorcery, palmistry, and fortune-telling. The historical, judicial, and literary references to Gypsies are many. The first literary reference to Gypsies (referred to as “egypcian”) occurs in a description of a fortune-teller in Thomas More’s A Dyalog of Syr Thomas More Knyghte. The Acts and Statutes against Gypsies, in England and throughout Europe, were frequent and severe. In 1530, for example, in laws passed that would be continued and made harsher by Elizabeth, Henry VIII issued a proclamation against so-called “outlandish” people calling themselves Egyptian, especially those who practiced occult arts such as palmistry and fortune-telling.