THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(20)

Iago tells Othello he knows both of them are from Gypsy “tribes,” as if now asking him for an admission. Othello, however, does not hear; he refuses to hear. Instead (and as a displacement of Iago’s sense, which he understands but ambivalently) Othello appeals to sight and revelation, witness and judgment, and demands to see proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Iago is neither disappointed nor surprised by Othello’s lack of understanding. Othello would rather see his wife’s sexual betrayal than reveal himself. Iago has been preparing for precisely this moment by asking his wife Emilia a “hundred times” to steal the handkerchief/napkin. It will offer more than words. “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove,” (III.3 111) Othello demands, now appealing to juridical rhetoric of doubt and proof. Knowing that nothing convinces more than sight, knowing too that appearances makes sight vulnerable, perceptions can be distorted, Iago will soon offer him what Othello craves, what he most needed to see since his marriage.

In another example of his mastery of language, Iago simply and profoundly answers: “as I am bound,/Receive it from me.” (III.3 111) Despite his slavery, Iago will nevertheless offer him a gift; he has been preparing it all along. In the entire scene, Iago has made insinuations with precise intentions and meaning, adding one significance on another, beginning (as he had in I.1with Roderigo) with slavery, money and purchase and, finally, the unmistakable reference to a “tribe,” a word surely relevant for Othello but who continues to refuse acknowledging it, the reminders of his past a burden, rejected and denied. The multiple references to sight, perception, and observation occur just prior to Iago leaving and Desdemona appearing on the scene with the handkerchief, the very thing that (apparently) will provide the “ocular proof’ of Desdemona’s betrayal.