Being What One Is (4.1.270)
Thoughts on Identity
After Othello slaps Desdemona and departs with words imitating Iago's from 3.3.403 ("goats and monkeys") ringing in everyone's ears, the remaining characters are stunned. "Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate/ call all in all sufficient (4.1.264-265)?" Lodovico wants to know. Othello the calm, the strong, the impassive and immovable is now coming apart. To Lodovico's question, "Are his wits safe? Is he not light of brain (4.1.269)?" Iago gives a seemingly cryptic but ultimately accurate assessment of Othello. "He's that he is (4.1.270)." Iago will relate Othello's downfall to the fact that Othello, like God, is what he is.
Iago tells us early in the play that unless he dissembles, he will be undone: "But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/ For daws to peck at (1.1.64-65)." Instead of facing the vulnerability that comes through honest self-portrayal, Iago will conceal. He will adopt a manner of appearance for his "peculiar" end, an end that unfolds as the play develops. In this regard Iago reverses the biblical words where God speaks of His own self-revelation when he says: "I am not what I am (1.1.65)." God, in the revelation to Moses says, "I am what I am (Ex.3:14). Iago's success relates to his ability to mask his true self, to cloak his desires by being "trimm'd in forms and visages of duty (1.1.50)," but only seeming to be so.
In fact, Iago will take advantage of the Moor's transparent character to bring about his downfall. "The Moor is of a free and open nature,/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so (1.3.399-400)." The person who is what he is, whether or not he is consciously imitating God, will be no match for the one who is not what he is.
But Othello's great fault, if that term is appropriate, is that it is impossible for him to dissemble (cf. 3.4.34). For example, after vowing to avenge himself on Desdemona in 3.3, he speaks to her in 3.4. She asks him, "How is't with you, my lord?" And he responds, "Well, my good lady. [Aside] O, hardness to dissemble---(3.4.34)." We learn right away that Othello cannot camouflage his true feelings. He can't "fake it," cannot suck it up and smile and suggest that everything is well when it is not so. Though he does not confront Desdemona directly with "evidence" of her infidelity (he has to beat around the bush by examining her hand and asking her about the handkerchief), he cannot also mask his displeasure with her. Thus, when Iago's says in response to Lodovico's question on whether Othello is "light of brain," that Othello is that he is, he is suggesting that 'what you see is what you get.' Even though Iago hastens to qualify his remark by saying "I may not breathe my censure/ What he might be. If what he might be is not,/ I would to heaven he were (4.1.270-272--i.e., 'I can't truly say what he is but if he were not mad, I wish he were, which would explain his conduct better')," he doesn't say that Othello's reaction is out of character.
If Iago is not what he is and Othello is what he is, what about Desdemona? That is really a major question in the play and is the subject for Brabantio's and Iago's speculation, as well as Desdemona's own statement. Because Othello is of a "free and open" nature, he thinks that she too must be of this nature at first, but once Iago has poisoned Othello's mind with her alleged deceptiveness, all Othello can see is Desdemona's deception. "This is a subtile whore,/ A closet lock and key of villainous secrets;/ And yet she'll kneel and pray; I have seen her do't (4.2.21-23)." Othello, the straightforward, non-dissimulating one, is trying to smoke out one whom he thinks is deceptive, but he thinks she is deceptive only because he has accepted the word of Iago, who is not what he is. Othello is in far over his head.
But Desdemona is not a simple or straightforward character. Her father sees her as deceptive: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see;/ She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee (1.3.292-293)." We might ascribe this to paternal anger and hurt, but is there something of truth in it? When Desdemona is awaiting the landing of Othello's ship on Cyprus and passes the time in a conversation with Iago, she describes herself this way:
"I am not merry; but I do beguile/ The thing I am by seeming otherwise-- (2.1.122-123)."
Commentators on this passage interpret the "thing" she is as her anxiety until her husband safely lands. She is an anxious person and has to try to seem "positive" in the face of the periolous conditions endured by her new husband. But might it have a deeper significance? Might it also suggest that Desdemona is more like Iago than like Othello, that she has learned the technique and value of dissimulation in order to survive and win?
One other passage clouds the issue. When Iago plays on Othello's fears of cuckoldry in 4.1, Iago tells Othello that in fact his condition as a cuckold is typical of men. "There's millions now alive/ That nightly lie in those unproper beds/ Which they dare swear peculiar (4.1.67-69)." But then he refers to Desdemona, the "wanton." He says, "No, let me know./ And knowing what I am, I know what she shall be (4.1.73-74)." Is Iago basically saying to Othello that 'it takes one to know one and since I am one [i.e., a deceiver], I know another [i.e., Desdemona]'? Of course this goes right past Othello, who responds, "O, thou art wise; 'tis certain (4.1.73)," but Iago is perhaps suggesting, as he did before (3.3.206-208), that she is dishonest. But, then again, if a person who is known to be a deceiver, who is not what he is, so characterizes another person, are we to take him seriously? In another essay I will explore the issue of Desdemona's "mixed signals" a little more closely.
The riddle of personal identity is captured by the brief words about Othello: "He's that he is." Are any of us really "who we are?" Or do we, like Othello, leap to conclusions before the evidence is in, live with a upended and insurrective mind, and show ourselves unwilling to change our course because we have become convinced of the truth of something gained without adequate evidence, and all the while claim to be simple and straightforward and lucid people?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long