THE GYPSY “TEST OF THE HANDKERCHIEF” IN OTHELLO(9)

In September 1455 (two years after the fall of Byzantium and the Gypsy exodus), Prince Vlad Dracul captured in Bulgaria twelve thousand persons “who looked like Egyptians” and took them back to Wallachia, thus becoming “the first wholesale importers of Gypsies as slaves.” Iago identifies with his enslaved ancestors; Othello, though ambivalent, ultimately denies and rejects them however much he may enjoy the slaughter of the “Turks” he so obviously loathes. Iago’s first intentions are simply to expose Othello as an impostor who hides his ethnicity, including submitting to a Christian baptism, in order to assimilate; his marriage is a sham, another denial of his ancestry. Othello continually flees from his past, refusing to acknowledge it out of fear and humiliation. Iago, however, knows his real identity. Despite his experience of slavery (which Othello, at one time, shared), Iago revolts with the only freedom he still possesses. His speech will be inflicted on others with Old Testament wrath, with the “pestilence” he will “pour” in people’s ears.

Iago’s countless references to slavery turn, in the same scene when Brabantio is told of Desdemona’ elopement, to descriptions of animals, the human world now reduced to a bestiary, first with descriptions of animal sexuality, the second with the specific mention of horses, jennets, and coursers. Iago knows Othello’s well-kept secret; and he begins to expose it with the wake-up call of “thieves” and “daughters,” the paranoid suspicion of Gypsies as robbers of children.