In the play Othello by William Shakespeare, the main villain, Iago, says many things hinting that he is not who he appears to be on the outside. Iago seems to be calm and kind, warm-hearted and loyal: many even call him “honest Iago,” but there is a sting of irony to this – Iago isn’t honest at all. It is just a facade, put on to fool those around him into trusting him and letting their guard down long enough for him to trick them. On the inside, he is a cold and calculating genius, whose sole purpose in life is to achieve power and success – through any means possible.
The phrase “I am not what I am” (I. I. 69) basically translates to “I am not what I appear to be,” but it goes much deeper than that. If you are not what you are, that what are you? It’s really a paradox: a person can be one thing in appearance, but the interior can be starkly different. Iago is never what he appears to be, taking on a chameleon-like ability to cahnge his character to suit a situation. Later, he virtually wishes himself into nonexistence when he says “Men should be what they seem, or those that be not, would they might seem none! “(I. I. 148-149).
Iago’s hypocrisy has a bit of foreshadowing to it: here is a man who is not what he appears to be, he tricks people into thinking that he is something he is not, and through his cruel scheming, he brings about his own downfall. “I am not what I am” also has some biblical connotations to it. In Exodus, 4:14, Moses asks God what name he should refer to him as to the Pharoah. God’s response is, very strongly, “I AM WHAT I AM,” which is in opposition to “I am not what I am. ” Was Shakespeare using a biblical allusion to hint that Iago is opposite of God, and therefore a devil?
In Shakespeare’s time, and among the Anglican Christians that made up his audience especially, the Devil was the ultimate villain. Later, towards the end of the play, Othello makes an interesting statement: “I look down towards his feet – but that’s a fable. If thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee” (V. . 333-334). Then, he stabs him: he does not die. Earlier in the play, when Othello is suspicious of Desdemona, he refers to her mistress Emilia (Iago’s wife) as the one that has the role opposite of St. Peter, and keeps the gates of hell.
Another thing that makes this statement ironic is that Iago, in telling Roderigo that he is not who he is, has just revealed his true character: and yet Roderigo doesn’t seem to notice at all. He keeps dropping hints, too: he says he wouldn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, that he uses people and thinks that those who don’t are morons, and then drops a slightly subtler hint when he tells Emilia at the end of the play that, well duh, I’ve been planning evil plans all along. When Brabantio accuses him of being a villain (I. I. 118-119), Iago doesn’t deny it at all. His response: “You are – a senator! All during the play he equivocates, and even while trying to convince Roderigo not to kill himself, every other sentence out of his mouth is “Put money in thy purse. ” It seems to me that, if the other characters had been a little more guarded, they might have been able to read up on Iago’s dropped hints. And “I am not what I am”? That’s the biggest dropped hint of all. There was even a crashing sound as it fell through the roof. But does Roderigo notice that Iago is using him, after he openly says it’s good to use people? Oh, no. Iago would never use him, just everybody else.
To sum it all up, the phrase “I am not what I am” isn’t just a metaphorical statement, it’s Iago’s open admission that he’s a double-dealing villain – and yet nobody seems to pick up on it. Iago really is clever, but horridly diabolical, and the way he works Roderigo to get his money, Othello to get him to kill his wife, Cassio to drink, and Emilia to steal the handkerchief is not only evil – it’s subtle. And that makes it all the worse. Rather than use his ingenious to bring about something good, he uses it for ill, and thus brings about his own – and everybody else’s – downfall.
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