by: William Shakespeare

Appearance vs. reality


I am not what I am. (I.i)

Iago utters these words in conversation with Roderigo, thereby signaling that he is not all that he appears to be. However, Iago’s words also contain a deeper, more subversive message. The phrase “I am not what I am” serves as a parodic allusion to a well-known biblical quote from Exodus 3:14, in which Moses asks God his name and God offers an enigmatic response: “I am that I am.” By transforming God’s words into a negative formulation, Iago indicates his identity as a diabolical figure.

The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose
As asses are. (I.iii.)

Iago delivers these lines in his soliloquy at the end of Act I. He begins his speech by declaring his intention to manipulate Roderigo for his own gain. Iago then turns his attention to Othello and his hatred for the man. Much like Roderigo, who believes too readily in Iago’s friendship, Othello “thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” Thus, Iago intends to use Othello just as he will use Roderigo, exploiting the man’s naïve belief in the reality of appearances to lead him (like a trusting donkey) to his own destruction.

Men should be what they seem,
Or those that be not, would they might seem none! (III.iii.)

Iago says these words to Othello during a discussion of Cassio’s trustworthiness. Given Iago’s previous claims about his own deviousness, these words have an ironic ring. Iago’s words are doubly ironic, in fact, since he espouses the truism not just to cover up his own treachery, but also to cause Othello to doubt Cassio’s honesty. The kind of duplicity Iago demonstrates here points to his deep-seated cynicism about the world. It also serves as a warning to the audience to remain wary of appearances.