09 April, 2006

I am not what I am

Iago. (. . .) For when my outward Action doth demonstrate
The native act, and figure of my heart
In Complement externe, 'tis not long after
But I will weare my heart upon my sleeue
For Dawes to pecke at; I am not what I am.

Othello, Act 1 Scene 1.

Olivia. Stay: I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.

Viola. That you do think you are not what you are.

Olivia. If I think so, I think the same of you.

Viola. Then think you right: I am not what I am.

— Twelfth Night, Act 3 Scene 1.

je suis ce que je ne suis pas, et. . . je ne suis pas ce que je suis

— Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Être et le Néant (1943), 'Le Regard'.

Wrestling with the first quote, I find it very difficult to understand Iago's statement that 'I am not what I am'. This has been almost universally interpreted as 'I am not what I seem', which appears entirely plausible in light of the quotation from Twelfth Night, where the sense is less ambiguous. Viola is not, as Olivia thinks, Cesario, but rather a woman. Similarly, it is argued, Iago is not, as Othello will think, his friend, but rather his enemy.

The problem for me is that the contexts are different—the exchange between the two women is playful banter; it is ironic that, unbeknownst to Olivia, Viola's statement is literally true. Iago's statement, however, comes at the end of a long speech with sinister intent. He is not trying to fool his interloctor, Roderigo: when he utters his words he intends that his accomplice understands exactly what he means. His statement, furthermore, is the climax of the speech, and of the entire scene, whereas in Twelfth Night, rhetorical emphasis is balanced between the two women. The great weight of Iago's utterance suggests a particular density of meaning.

Iago's 'I am not what I am' is not casual and mocking, like Viola's. Shakespeare could have written 'I am not what I seem' (= 'that-which-I-am is not that-which-I-seem'), but he instead he produced a proposition with an almost metaphysical ring to it. To me it suggests a koan or insoluble contradiction; the listener constantly tries to make sense out of it, for example by hearing it as 'I am not what I seem', but ultimately he can't. Thus is produced in his mind a state of tension or anxiety, Iago's lingering presence throughout the rest of the play. Iago, like Sartre's homme engagé, has retained his existential autonomy, his capacity to transcend the limits of all verbal or ontological formulation.

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