What is significant in Iago's monologue in act 1, scene 1 of Othello?

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 kneecrooking knave,

That doting on his own obsequious bondage

Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,

For naught 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 complement 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.

In Othello, the significance of Iago's speech is that it reveals something about his character. On the one hand, he heartily despises his master, Othello. But on the other, he has to give the appearance that he continues to serve him, as this will lull Othello into a false sense of security, thus making it easier for Iago to destroy him. The speech also reveals something about the nature of Venetian society.

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As Iago readily admits, we cannot all be masters. And in Venice's rigidly hierarchical society, there's absolutely nothing he can do about that. There is a natural order of things; some people give orders, others take them. That's just the way it is.

But there is one way that someone low down on the social ladder like Iago can exercise mastery— and that's by manipulating his social betters. And that's precisely what Iago does to Othello by getting him to believe that Desdemona has been cheating on him. By pretending to be a loyal and faithful servant, Iago is lulling Othello into a false sense of security that will make it so much easier for him to carry out his wicked plan. And in carrying out this plan, Iago is subverting the social order from within, which is the only way that someone of his class can challenge the existing structure of society.

Iago clearly understands how society works in a way that the dim Roderigo never could. He's observed that men from humble backgrounds can only get what they want if they pretend to be loyal to their masters but in actual fact, work to further their own interests. Iago's breathtaking cynicism in this speech doesn't just tell us a lot about himself, it's also very revealing about the nature of Venetian society.

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The key to understanding Iago’s speech comes at the end when he says, “I am not what I am.” Iago is supposedly confiding in Roderigo about his attitude toward Othello, who is his superior officer in the military. Iago deliberately negates the biblical assertion that God makes in Exodus, “I am what I am,” indicating that he is diabolical rather than godlike. As Iago complains about Othello choosing Cassio for his lieutenant, Roderigo says that if he had been insulted that way, he would refuse to serve Othello. In explaining the paradoxes of service, in which one must often pretend to like one’s superior, Iago is attempting to assuage Roderigo’s doubts about the money he has been paying Iago to help him court Desdemona. Iago is apparently talking about his relationship to Othello, saying that he is among the men who “well thrive” by making “shows of service on their lords.” Yet Iago insists that he truly follows no lord: “I follow but myself.” Iago’s words refer to his following Othello, but in a sense he is also resisting Roderigo’s implication of controlling him. Roderigo should keep paying him: because he has no real sense of duty, money will temporarily buy a change of loyalty.

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The other side of Iago's speech, beyond foreshadowing his future plot to try to bring down Othello, is that he raises questions about the very nature of leadership and service. He states:

We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly follow'd. 

He points out that not everyone can be a dutiful follower and also that not everyone should be dutifully followed. How often are leaders followed by others simply out of self-interest? Are there truly people out there who are loyal without thinking of their own interests; are there those who do not follow a leader because they think, in the end, that they will also get what they want?

Iago suggests that those

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.

He points out that followers who are honest about why they are following "have some soul" and that he is one of those rather than the followers who do so somewhat blindly.

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This speech in the play 'Othello' by William Shakespeare is signifacnt because it is very revealing and tells us something of Iago's real self - not the one he puts on show to the world and to his master. He is telling Roderigo all about his plan to con Othello and to make gains from what the ever sharply observant servant sees as his weaknesses. He does not credit people with much intelligence who wander around being themselves all the time. The old saying about wearing hearts on sleeves means showing your true emotions to the world at all times - this Iago will never do. Even though he is sharing with us, and with Iago, he still speaks in riddles and in a very oblique style :

 “I am not what I am”  

builds suspense as it hooks the audience - we feel a sense of threat and intrigue wondering what Iago will do. We now know that it is just a matter of time before the seemingly obsequious Iago gets his own back on Othello and serves his 'turn upon him.'

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