In Othello’s opening scene Iago, the villain of the play, makes a seemingly contradictory statement, ‘I am not what I am,’ (Othello, 1.1.65). This is not the only contradictory statement Iago makes about himself, but it is the first of its kind that blatantly hints at his ever-changing identity. Iago introduces himself to Roderigo as a warrior, a victim of Othello’s disregard, and a loyal friend to Roderigo and, paradoxically, Othello himself. In the span of only a hundred lines Iago has both proclaimed his love and admiration for Othello as his commander in chief while at the same time stating that ‘I follow but myself’ (Othello, 1.1.58). Iago effectively casts himself in many roles, making his identity a source of speculation for the audience as the play progresses.
Just as much as Iago avoids limiting himself to one role, he liberally attempts to push Othello, Desdemona and Cassio into very specific roles in order to advance his revenge. Othello becomes an outsider, as literature scholar Cacicedo explains, he is essentially a ‘stranger [arriving] in a strange land,’ (Cacicedo, 24) or an ‘Other’ who cannot be expected to comply with social expectations because of irreconcilable cultural differences. At the same time, Iago presents Desdemona as a woman with lascivious tendencies and sexuality that threatens Othello’s honour by cuckolding him. Finally, Cassio becomes both a liar and a man who enjoys cuckolding Othello, his superior officer. Iago ‘[pours] this pestilence into [Othello’s] ear’ (Othello, 2.3.347) and convinces him to seek revenge against Desdemona and Cassio.
As Othello begins to doubt everyone around him, Iago positions himself as a close ally and loyal friend. He continually reminds Othello that he loves him and would never betray him, eventually succeeding in isolating Othello entirely from the truth. During the third act, however, Othello unknowingly manages to extract some truth from Iago (Othello, 3.3.166):
Othello: By heaven I’ll know thy thought.
Iago: You cannot, if my heart were in your hand,
Nor shall not, whilst ‘tis in my custody
Iago admits that neither Othello, nor anyone else for that matter, will know what he is truly thinking. Iago mentions having his own heart in his custody, a statement that contradicts his many claims of love towards Othello. If Othello were in possession of Iago’s heart, if it were in his hand, then he would have no trouble seeing the truth. As it is, Othello does not have that power and Iago’s identity continues to be hidden behind a veneer of expertly weaved lies.
It is through small glimpses that the audience and the characters on stage are able to discern some of what may be Iago’s true identity. It is up to the audience to ultimately determine what Iago’s identity is as the play does not give a definite answer to that question. An interpretation of Iago’s identity is that he ‘represented the reality of evil, an evil all the more powerful and terrifying because it was not based on reasons and could not be understood.’ (Schapiro, 483). This interpretation is particularly jarring since Iago’s revenge is unleashed due to a missed military promotion. The punishment that Iago deals out to Othello is exceedingly more harsh than the perceived offense and cannot, therefore, be explained rationally. Reason does not play a role in Iago’s narrative, all that seems to motivate him are raw emotions.
Iago’s emotions, negative as they are, are inseparable from Othello’s own destructiveness. They are responses to ‘intolerable vulnerability and self-endangerment.’ (Schapiro, 485). Iago receives a blow to his sense of self and reacts violently in order to heal his sense of self and, to a lesser extent, to contain the damage dealt. Iago’s identity morphs depending on who he is associating with and on the way his plans progress. Just as Othello’s world unravels, so does Iago’s own identity until he is unmasked by his wife Emilia. By the time Iago is revealed to be the villain, it is too late to save Othello and Desdemona. Iago’s revenge is completed and he will probably face punishment for his actions.
Even with the threat of punishment hanging in the air as the play ends, the question of whether or not Iago will pay for what he has done continues to permeate the air. After all, the audience is not able to witness his punishment and a master manipulator such as Iago could theoretically find a way to evade trouble. The inability to obtain proper closure acts as an extension of Iago’s problematic identity as the question of how to punish someone who is not what he is remains unanswered.
Cacicedo, A. (2016). “Othello, Stranger in a Strange Land.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 18, no. 1 7-27. JSTOR.
Schapiro, B. A. (Winter, 2003). “Psychoanalysis and the Problem of Evil: Debating Othello in the Classroom.” American Imago 60, no.4 486-7. JSTOR
Shakespeare, W. (1992). Othello. Edited by M.R. Ridley. London: Routledge.
Gilbert, John and Dalziel Brothers. 1867. Iago and Othello (16/28) https://shakespeareillustration.org/2015/02/08/othello-and-iago-2/
Gilbert, John and Dalziel Brothers. 1867. Iago and Othello (17/28) https://shakespeareillustration.org/2015/02/08/othello-and-iago-3/
Selous, H. C. and Wentworth, F. c. 1864. Iago and Othello.