THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(7)

OTHELLO(7)

Iago is a slave. He is owned. In the beginning, he may not be as mistreated as Caliban and suffer the insults of being called, directly, a “poisonous slave,” but he experiences Othello’s compliments of honesty as patronizing and contemptuous; the master gives the slave false compliments, as compensation, to appease. Without ever mentioning the word “slave” (it will become prominent and repeated with more frequency as the tragedy develops) Iago protests “there’s no remedy” from “the curse of service.” (I.1 52) Suffering from a double affliction, physical and spiritual, Iago now begins to disclose the real reason (and there are more) for despising Othello. He gives Roderigo a virtual list describing servitude, words almost attached to each other in succession, with references to service, knaves, bondage, all of them following the statement “we cannot all be masters, nor all masters/Cannot be truly followed.” (I.1 52)

In the first indication of a rhetoric that will simultaneously confound and entice his listeners, his language exploiting the ambiguity of a character’s selfunderstanding (what Desdemona, for example, calls her “divided duty”), Iago continues to describe the intolerable condition of “obsequious bondage,” a revelation that culminates with the related lines that, first, says “were I the Moor, I would not be Iago,” and second, concludes with: “I am not what I am.” His allusion to Exodus 3:13 is more cryptic than has been imagined; and Shakespeare’s use of an “Egyptian” handkerchief and its relation to the Bible is consequential.