THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(18)

(III.3 108) Othello uses the common word for servant, “knave,” without a second thought, but it is Iago who, as usual, brilliantly answers, telling him in a complicated language much too difficult for Othello to understand how “men should be what they seem;/Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” (III.3 108) Othello’s emotions make it impossible for him to analyze the meaning of Iago’s statement. Does Othello, here, begin to “submit” to Iago’s narrative? Stephen Greenblatt notes: “the question remains why anyone would submit, even unconsciously, to Iago’s narrative fashioning.” Othello is vulnerable to manipulation because he is already self-abusive with threatening fantasies; he makes himself submit to an internal narrative. Iago’s lies only compound the possibility of a false Desdemona that Othello has, from the moment of their marriage and because of the omission of a ritual, suspected from the beginning. He does not know something crucial; and the ignorance threatens him with devastation.

Echoing his earlier Biblical allusion, Iago is calling Othello a fraud; he reminds him of the contradiction between his present position as a general (he is, ultimately, nothing more than a mercenary) and his past, a past that included relation to a Gypsy tribe, peregrinations, and slavery. Iago’s rhetorical complications, which both confuse and entice his listeners, continue to emphasize the condition of slavery; by juxtaposing the indirect language of metaphors with clear self-revelation, Iago appears to speak in what Kenneth Gross has called “disguised babble,” a form of speech that seems to alternate between apparent gibberish and the truth, “to make his listener lend their ears to a meaning they do not comprehend but think of as urgent.” Iago uses transferred language, a language whose power is used simultaneously for the most extreme deceit and confession; truth and falsehood is juxtaposed.