THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(6)

He is a “Moor” (that, after all, is Shakespeare’s description, just as it was for the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice) but he is also much more. “The question of Othello’s race is of paramount importance,” Margaret Webster wrote in 1942, but she added that it was “improbable” Shakespeare “troubled himself greatly with ethnological exactness.” On the contrary, Shakespeare is nothing if not ethnologically exact in Othello. The play absolutely depends on it. His allusions are numerous and unmistakable; Shakespeare’s audience surely understood them. But before tracing the history of Othello’s complicated ethnicity and the meaning of the handkerchief/napkin for him, it is necessary to return to the beginning of Iago’s plot. He has many motives for his vengeance; and it begins with slavery.

In I.1, when Roderigo both recognizes and admits he is being manipulated like a puppet, telling Iago “thou. . . hast my purse/As if the strings were thine,”

Iago begins to implicate him in his plot by telling him the reasons for his apparent hatred of Othello. First of all, he has been ignored for promotion; despite proving himself in battle, Cassio the Florentine, the mere “arithmetician” with knowledge of Machiavelli, has been chosen in his place. The reason, along with the soon-mentioned sexual betrayal, is a convenient excuse, nothing more. Iago’s real reasons and motives, however, he will soon describe, but always indirectly, as if he is obeying an injunction. He provides countless references and descriptions, the synonyms almost exhaustive, and yet his self-expression occurs, at times, through omission. He cannot, it seems, speak a taboo word unless it is counterfeited by its opposite, slave/free canceling each other out. Iago has not been heard above the clamour of his malice; but he continues to demand it, from beginning to end, when his rhetoric finally succumbs to a vow of silence only torture will defy. “From this time forth I never will speak word,” Iago says at the end before he is led away to a gruesome death, his purpose accomplished. How does his vengeance start?