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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: February ::
Re: Iago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0123  Wednesday, 11 February 1998.

[1]     From:   Ira Abrams <
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        Date:   Monday, 9 Feb 1998 15:56:55 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 9.0113  Iago

[2]     From:   Moray McConnachie <
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        Date:   Tuesday, February 10, 1998 5:43 AM
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0118  Re: Iago

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Tuesday, February 10, 1998
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0118  Re: Iago

[4]     From:   Margaret Demorest <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 10 Feb 1998 18:24:19 -0800
        Subj:   Iago: I am

[5]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Feb 1998 02:03:21 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Iago


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ira Abrams <
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Date:           Monday, 9 Feb 1998 15:56:55 -0500
Subject: Iago
Comment:        SHK 9.0113  Iago

Skip Nicholson asks:

>Why does Shakespeare have Iago say, "I am not what I am."? (1.1.65) The
>line's not glossed in the Pelican, Riverside, nor Arden edition. If Iago
>means he's not what he seems, why doesn't he phrase it that way? Is
>there here a perverted echo of God's identifying himself out of the
>burning bush to Moses as "I am that I am" (KJV)?

It is hard to reduce any single line to one interpretation.  In this
case, you may be right to hear an inversion of YHWH, but there are
certainly other possibilities which should not be excluded. Without
stopping to reflect on the fact that this is a speech Iago makes to a
<<gull>> and so must be handled as unreliable speech, consider one other
angle. You could look at this line in the context of the "outward
appearance" and servitude language of this speech.  You may find
references to sumptuary laws-at least in a general sense.  Sumptuary
laws involve, among other things, the regulation of clothing and
behaviour according to social position.  In Shakespeare's time, although
there were constant complaints about the failure to observe and enforce
these laws, they were quite strict.  To appear to be something-i.e. to
dress and act as a person of a certain rank-is, arguably,  to <<be>>
something in such a society.  Ergo, not to be what one appears to be is
not to be what one is-according to common reckoning.  Iago's speech
returns several times to the question of whether he really is the Moor's
servant.  I won't quote here what you have access to there, but note the
transformation of the thought from the initial confounding of the
master-servant distinction to the concluding confounding of the
outward-inward connection.

Ira Abrams

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Moray McConnachie <
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Date:           Tuesday, February 10, 1998 5:43 AM
Subject: 9.0118  Re: Iago
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0118  Re: Iago

>From:           Bill Cain <
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I am what I am (1.1.65)

<snip>
>you begin to hear the other lines it could have been, or perhaps more
>sensibly should have been:

>I seem not what I am
>I am not what I seem

<snip>
>: Why are not those words
>there? But maybe they are there-it is hard to keep from hearing them
>echoing from the line that Shakespeare did write.

Yes, I agree with this to the extent that if we were to "translate" the
line we would have to "translate" it in such a manner.

Consider the speech Iago is giving, making himself (for the greater
bedazzlement of Rodrigo) into the Machiavellian villain - or hero!

In the Quarto text, "I am not what I am" is lineated on its own. It is
preceded by a comma, which has the effect of making it dependent on
'when my outward action does demonstrate | the natiue act and figure of
my heart:' *then* I am not what I (really) am (a villain).

This phrase, particularly if taken in this way, but otherwise also,
turns virtuous behaviour on its head. It constructs a paradox based on
the "to thine own self be true" motto. Iago, knowing himself to be a
secretive being, someone unable to be honest from thought to word, if he
*were* to be true to himself would be denying himself.

In the Folio text, "I am not what I am" is a clause following a
semi-colon, as if the compositor at least took it as a summarising
phrase. I think, though,  there is still a case for its being read as
dependent on the "when.....". The semi-colon has been made a colon in
the Arden text, which I think is confusing for those accustomed to
reading Renaissance texts, in which a colon has a greater finality than
we are used to in reading modern
texts.[1]

Whether or not it is dependent on the "when", it has a similar effect to
that of the biblical mystery. It is smooth, unassailable, mysterious.
Its smoothness lies in its apparent balance, I think. It is hard to tell
which "I am" is the "real" Iago: is the smiling courtier not the
villain, or is it the other way about? This may seem a pointless
question (and perhaps it
is), but the confusion of identity involved is one to which an audience
is continually drawn in consideration of Iago's motives, a consideration
which he (& Shakespeare) so resolutely fails to satisfy.

The equal weight of the "I am"s, I think, suggests also that there may
*be* no "real" Iago (as of course there isn't, in one sense), even
within the context of the play, but merely a series of assumed
identities, from the Machiavellian here to the smiling courtier who
flirts with Desdemona.

In summary, the whole point of the phrase is that one cannot easily
disentangle the seemings from the beings, the appearance from the
essence. Indeed, their paradox represents the rejection of essence.

On the biblical source of the phrase, I don't think Iago is parodying
God (Exodus 3.14), but parodying Paul (who of course is referring to
Exodus) when he says (1. Cor. 15.10, Bishops' Bible) 'But by the grace
of God, I am that I am' (in 1611 AV, "I am what I am," interestingly if
the 1611 date for Othello is to be accepted [what is the current state
of the controversy on this?].) For Iago is not the devil, but, as Paul
of the Lord, a servant of the devil - and of the play - it is
Shakespeare who is parodying God, although at the end he makes Iago seem
to reject the drama, almost stop taking part, while Othello goes on to
make his melodramatic end.

But I digress. This parody of Paul ties in with the "be true to thyself"
paradox, as the implication is: God made me what I am, so how can I be
otherwise? Or even God made me what I am, but I won't accept his grace
to be that?

>The effect seems perfect for the creepy irrationality and
>disorder-producing uncanny strategies of the character that Shakespeare
>devised.

Agreed!

Moray McConnachie

[1] Which is presumably why Ridley changed the semi-colon, as it might
be thought a modern colon and a Renaissance semi-colon are similar in
weight. However, in the text's notes on punctuation, Ridley suggests
that 'a good deal of F's punctuation looks as though it were intended to
help the [italic]reader[/italic], and therefore approaches modern
'syntactical' punctuation more nearly than Q1', concluding that Q1 is
nearer to Shakespeare.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Tuesday, February 10, 1998
Subject: 9.0118  Re: Iago
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0118  Re: Iago

Iago is talking about playing a part. The fact that 'I am not what I am'
also immediately speaks for the actor playing Iago as much as it does
for the 'character' in the play makes this one of those sudden, jarring,
self-referring moments which the early modern drama frequently
exploits.  Compare Troilus's dismayed, but no less explosive 'this is
and is not Cressid' -of the male actor playing the role.

T. Hawkes

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Margaret Demorest <
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Date:           Tuesday, 10 Feb 1998 18:24:19 -0800
Subject:        Iago: I am

A reminder:  Sonnet 121 reads:

        For why should others' false adulterate eyes
        Give salutation to my sportive blood?
        Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
        Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
        No, I am that I am; and they that level
        At my abuses reckon up their own.

The phrase "I am that I am" was not uncommon in "wills."  It appears,
for example, in the will of John Stubbs, who had objected to the queen's
proposed marriage with the French prince Alencon.  The book by
Stubbs--_Gaping Gulf_--offended Elizabeth so severely that he was
condemned to lose his writing hand, and afterward was known as
_Scaeva_.  His will includes the phrase _Gratia dei sum quod sum_.

Margaret Demorest

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Feb 1998 02:03:21 -0500
Subject:        Re: Iago

Skip Nicholson's query sent me back to the text.  It seems to me that "I
am not what I am" (I.i.65) harkens back directly to lines 56-57:

                It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
                Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.

In other words,  "I assure you that if I were Othello I would not want
to have someone like me around."  But the superficial tautology in line
57 is perhaps as suggestive as the surface paradox in line 65  that Skip
asks about.  I do not pretend that this answers Skip's question.  The
biblical allusion may well be there regardless of whether line 65
extends the image from lines 56-57.  This is just something else to
think about.

Here is another thing about this speech, which I have often thought
about:  It seems entirely out of character; it is much too
self-revelatory for Iago.  It reads almost like a villain's introductory
soliloquy.  Cf. RIII.I.i.1 et seq.; KL,I.ii.1 et seq.  Does anyone have
any thoughts about this?

Larry Weiss
 

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