THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(8)

Iago is not only hinting at the historical condition of Jewish slavery, eventual freedom from Egyptian bondage, and the scattering of “tribes” in a perpetual exile. Iago is, remarkably, identifying himself with Jews and slaves and, more importantly, exposing Othello (like him) of being “Egyptian,” a word whose particular meaning for Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience has nothing to do with the land of the Pharaohs. Since “the word Gipsy/Gypsy derives from the word ‘Egyptian,” Shakespeare provides a first association, a relation he pursues relentlessly. Iago is haunted by the memory of diaspora, a neglected history of an entire people who, beginning as so-called “untouchables,” were forced into centuries of migrations as a defense against oppression and persecution, making their way from India to Persia, Turkey and, finally (with the conquest of Byzantium by Mehmet II in 1453) into Europe as far as the Iberian peninsula.

Not accidentally does Othello mention, in detail, the maritime geography of the region, as if he too had memorized stories of the Ottoman invasion and the Gypsy expulsion. “Like to the Pontic sea,/Whose icy current and compulsive course/Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on/To the Propontic and the Hellespont.” (III.3 121) He remembers, but is compelled to forget. As a Spanish Gitano, Iago is afflicted with the memory of an entire people and their history, a reminiscence of exile, persecution, and enslavement that begins, perhaps, with one record of arrival in Europe and their inclusion into Western history with none other than Vlad, the sadistic ruler known, among other things, as “the Impaler.”