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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, April 11, 2016

“I am not what I am” is Iago’s code for his being, like Viola……a woman disguised as a man!

A few weeks ago, I wrote:
“…I am not the first to note that Viola and Iago speak the identical words "I am not what I am". For example, Stephen Booth noted this parallel in 1995, when he wrote the following in drawing a number of surprising parallels between Othello and Twelfth Night: "To begin with the truly minimal, central deceivers in both Twelfth Night and Othello echo and play on “I am that I am” the phrase in Exodus 3:14 by which Jehovah so unsatisfactorily defines himself for Moses. During their second interview, Olivia asks the disguised ‘Viola’ “his” opinion of her and thereby opens the way into an ontological cul-de-sac ["I am not what I am"]…Iago uses the same words in celebrating the difference between what he is and what he appears to be…"
However, where I vigorously disagree with Booth is that I do not consider the usage of that identical God-like pronouncement by both Iago and Viola to be of minimal significance. Rather, I believe this exact quotation is Shakespeare's way of alerting the reader who treats his entire canon as a kind of "Bible" with dense, thematically significant intertextuality amongst its parts, that Iago and Viola are profoundly similar not merely in their readiness to assume metaphorical disguise to achieve their goals, but in their readiness to assume ACTUAL disguise (Viola presenting herself to the world as Cesario, Iago briefly presenting himself to the world as the CLOWN)!
But it was only as I was finishing this post, that I noticed Shakespeare's final wink at the parallel between Viola in disguise as Cesario and Iago disguised as CLOWN. It occurs when Viola says to Olivia ---"now I am your FOOL". For Shakespeare, fools and CLOWNs were virtually synonymous. And this is especially the case in Twelfth Night, because in the speech attributions and stage directions Feste is always referred to as "CLOWN",  whereas he himself, and the other characters in the play, always refer to him as Olivia's fool!”  END QUOTE FROM MY EARLIER POST

A wild and crazy idea occurred to me yesterday relative to the above: “What if Iago was not merely like Viola in adopting a physical disguise as another person (the Clown), but was even more like Viola, in being a woman who adopts, over an extended period of time, a physical disguise as a man?” I quickly realized that this would provide a much more satisfying explanation than I gave in my earlier post for  why Shakespeare caused Iago to echo Viola in uttering that identical parody of God’s words in Exodus. I.e., Viola spends nearly the entirety of Twelfth Night disguised as “Cesario”---what if Iago is a woman (whose real name we never hear) doing exactly the same thing in Othello?

One argument in favor of this reading is that it is not entirely new. Some quick research showed me that there have been productions of Othello over the years in which Iago has indeed been played as a woman disguised as a man, although I cannot discern that this decision was based on a belief that it was fulfilling Shakespeare’s original intention. And I also found a half dozen Tweets in which the same idea has been floated. But…I don’t see that anyone has ever connected the dots between those productions and speculations, on the one hand, and the crucial fact that Iago echoes Viola in that famous line, on the other.  Let’s take a closer look, shall we, and see how those dots connect up?

In Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1, Olivia is making Viola (“Cesario”) very uncomfortable by coming on to “him” romantically, as a result of which Viola in effect shares a private joke with the audience, that she obviously does not wish to share with Olivia. We in the audience, who witnessed the transformation of Viola into “Cesario” at the beginning of the play, therefore understand “I am not what I am” as Viola’s coded and poignant message that she is not a man, but a woman – and what’s more, a woman in love with a man – Duke Orsino—to whom for whatever reason she does not yet wish to reveal her female identity, when we read:

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.
OLIVIA   I would you were as I would have you be!
VIOLA  Would it be better, madam, than I am? I wish it might, for now I am your fool.
OLIVIA  O, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful In the contempt and anger of his lip!
A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon Than love that would seem hid: love's night is noon.
Cesario, by the roses of the spring, By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride, Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause, For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,
But rather reason thus with reason fetter, Love sought is good, but given unsought better.
VIOLA  By innocence I swear, and by my youth I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,
And that no woman has; nor never none Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.
And so adieu, good madam: never more Will I my master's tears to you deplore.
OLIVIA  Yet come again; for thou perhaps mayst move That heart, which now abhors, to like his love.

Now let’s take a look at Iago, who speaks that exact same line but in a very different circumstance. As the play begins, we catch him in mid-conversation defending himself to Roderigo, who is irked because he believes Iago, who has supposedly been acting as Roderigo’s  hired “Yenta” for courtship of the rich heiress Desdemona, should have done something to prevent Othello from eloping with Roderigo’s “intended”.

IAGO    O, sir, content you;
I follow him to serve my turn upon him: We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly follow'd. You shall mark Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage, Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,
For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd: Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty, Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords, Do well thrive by them and when they have lined their coats Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul; And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo, Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end: For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at: I AM NOT WHAT I AM……

Iago’s defense is to explain to Roderigo how much he really hates Othello, all appearances to the contrary. He even makes a point of saying that he serves Othello “not…for love”. He uses the Biblical phraseology to explain that he disguises himself as Othello’s honest servant, while secretly using Othello for his own “peculiar end”—but Iago never explains what that “peculiar end” is, and end that would presumably coincide with preventing Othello from marrying Desdemona. How come?

The true motive (or lack thereof) for Iago’s malicious destruction of the happiness of those closest to him has been a mystery that has fascinated and stymied centuries of Shakespeare scholars and ordinary Bardolaters alike. One strand of speculative interpretation has explored whether Iago is a gay man who loves Othello, and therefore (ironically) is motivated by jealousy and a desire for revenge on both the secret beloved who has spurned him, and also on the woman who has stolen his secret beloved’s heart right from under him. That latter motivation sparks even more irony, when we hear Roderigo’s self-pity, because Iago, as longtime unrequited lover of Othello at close proximity, has reason to feel much greater pain upon Othello’s sudden elopement, than Roderigo, whose courtship of Desdemona has existed entirely in his own imagination, as carefully and cynically cultivated by Iago.

I’ve always found great merit in that interpretation of Iago as a gay man, but what if Iago’s “peculiar end” is even more convincingly understood as being the same exact end that Viola seeks? I.e., what if Iago is a woman who impersonates a man because it is the only way she can stay close, in the role of trusted right hand “man”, to Othello, the man she loves? In that reading, Othello would not be Olivia, but Duke Orsino.

The ripple effects of this massive change in understanding the play’s protagonist are enormous, but to take just one, think of the layers of fresh meaning this interpretation brings to the two scenes in the middle of Othello during which Iago eventually maneuvers Othello toward a strange “marriage ceremony” .

In Act 2, Scene 3, right after Iago firmly plants the first seeds of jealousy in Othello’s brain, note Iago’s words of love subtly slipped into the mix:

OTHELLO   I think so too.
OTHELLO  Nay, yet there's more in this: I prithee, speak to me as to thy thinkings,
As thou dost ruminate, and give thy worst of thoughts The worst of words.
IAGO   O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!
OTHELLO   O misery!
IAGO   Poor and content is rich and rich enough, But riches fineless is as poor as winter
To him that ever fears he shall be poor. Good heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend From jealousy!
OTHELLO    …. No, Iago; I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,-- Away at once with love or jealousy!

And then, we reach the culmination of this strange romantic arc in an ad hoc ceremony improvised by Iago and Othello in Act 3, Scene 3:

IAGO   Do not rise yet.
Kneels Witness, you ever-burning lights above, You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here Iago doth give up The execution of his wit, hands, heart, To wrong'd Othello's service! Let him command, And to obey shall be in me remorse, What bloody business ever.
They rise

Not exactly a traditional exchange of “I do’s”, but it’s the best Iago can get, right?

And realize that this arc of Iago’s heterosexual love for Othello began when Shakespeare gave us that first, unambiguous signal that Iago is a woman, prompting us to recall Viola speaking specifically about her disguise as a man. It makes perfect sense that this echo be sounded at the moment when we’re first introduced to Iago in Act 1, Scene 1, of Othello, even before we have any idea at all about Iago’s character.

By the end of Act 1, Scene 1, we know that disguise is Iago’s middle name, so to speak, so such a physical disguise would fit perfectly with such a character. And then, when we get to Act 3, Scenes 1 and 4, we’re already primed to think about Iago as a master of disguise, and so we in the audience would have a good chance of hearing the Clown’s Iagoishness, and then guessing that Iago was also the Clown in disguise, making it a disguise of a disguise! We know by then that Iago’s art of disguise has no limits, in his behavior, his speech, and/or his garb---it is all part and parcel of the essence of the satanic shapeshifter he so clearly was.

And all of the above would be enough to make this line of inquiry worthwhile, but here’s where Iago as a woman gets more interesting still. Through my brief study this morning, I quickly found that there’s another significant echo in Othello of that above quoted exchange between Viola and Olivia – in fact, it occurs a mere three lines earlier than Viola’s “I am not what I am” --- it’s the line in which Olivia flirts with “Cesario” in a very particular way:

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.
OLIVIA   I would you were as I would have you be!
VIOLA  Would it be better, madam, than I am? I wish it might, for now I am your fool.

I realized as soon as I read that exchange with Othello specifically in mind, that I had just seen something exactly like that in Othello, because I had just discussed the following exchange in Act 2, Scene 1, in one of my posts over the weekend just ended!:

IAGO   O gentle lady, do not put me to't; For I am nothing, if not critical.
DESDEMONA  Come on assay. There's one gone to the harbour?
IAGO  Ay, madam.
DESDEMONA  I am not merry; but I do beguile The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.

Is it just a coincidence that Iago and Desdemona both strongly echo in the above quoted passage the  distinctive lines spoken by Viola and Olivia in their short exchange? Of course not!! Shakespeare was NOT that unconscious an artist! No, I claim he very much meant for those who read his plays as a unified canon like the Bible, or even those who had only seen Twelfth Night on stage, and then were attending a performance of Othello two years later, to notice this striking double parallelism, and then, to ask themselves: what might this mean? And seeing Iago as a woman becomes even more interesting when we see Desdemona’s echoing Olivia in the above scenes, in terms of what it suggests to us about both Iago and Desdemona.

Olivia has no conscious awareness that “Cesario” is actually female, but it is also plausible to speculate that Olivia’s strong attraction to Viola is based at least in part on an unconscious lesbian attraction she feels for Viola (and perhaps vice versa as well?). This all lays the groundwork for Olivia’s abrupt transfer of her affections to the very masculine Sebastian (who, by the way, used the assumed name “Roderigo” while on the voyage to Illyria), who somehow manages to resemble Viola very strongly, at the end of the play.

So, what is Shakespeare suggesting to us about Desdemona, by drawing this surprising parallel between the recently married innocent bride of Othello, on the one hand, and the worldly, provocative, desirable unmarried heiress Olivia, on the other? Desdemona explains her teasing questions posed to Iago as an innocent way for her to reduce her anxiety for Othello’s safe return from the wars. After all, Desdemona knows Iago to be Othello’s right hand “man”, and so who would be a safer man to mildly flirt with?

How can she even guess that such flirting will both exacerbate Iago’s jealousy of Othello, but also reveal to his sharp eye her vulnerability to defamation. Iago will take that innocent flirting by Desdemona, and weave it into a narrative of wanton adultery. And perhaps, even in the innocent young woman, might there also be, some subconscious sexual attraction felt by Desdemona to Iago, similar to that felt by Olivia toward “Cesario”? or even similar to the way Duke Orsino sees “Cesario”?  Many questions, no clear answers—but I hope you’ll agree that the meme of Iago as a woman opens up some fruitful avenues for fresh interpretation of the entirety of Othello.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode  on Twitter

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