THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(14)

More important, Brabantio’s reference to Othello’s “sooty bosom,” along with the many references to the “black” colour of his skin throughout the play, including the word “begrimed,” also reveals an ethnicity that, until now, has been ignored. “The Gypsies’ dark complexion,” writes Gilad Margalit, “was defined in Europe as black.” The repetition of “black” has disguised Othello; modern sensibility has not seen him. The historical references to “black” and “dirty” Gypsies are countless. As early as the tenth century, the Persian poet Firdausi wrote: “no washing ever whitens the black Gypsy.” The monk Cornerius of Lubeck described gypsies as having “most ugly black faces.” In several descriptions of gypsies arriving in European cities, one mentioned that “the men were very black.” Finally, in the 1608 Lanthorne and Candle-Light, Thomas Dekker describes gypsies as “Tawny Moores bastardes, for no Red-oakes man carries a face of a more filthy complexion.”

Along with the accusation of practicing sorcery and his “black” skin colour, Othello is now slandered with two more serious charges: “for if such action may have passage free,/” Brabantio argues, “Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.” (I.2 62) The final charge against him, and the one most important for Iago, completes the indictment of Othello’s character prior to possibly facing the “bloody book of law,” the judgment of Moor, sorcerer, black, pagan, and slave now sufficient to prejudice him in the eyes of the Venetian signoria and make him vulnerable to prosecution. The charges, all of them identifiable with Gypsies, are multiple and serious. Othello’s reaction, however, is telling; he too has a “divided duty.”