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What is the significance of the phrase "I am not what I am" in Othello?

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The phrase "I am not what I am" in Othello signifies Iago's deceptive nature and foreshadows his duplicitous actions. Spoken in act 1, scene 1, it reveals his intent to appear loyal while plotting Othello's downfall. The phrase contrasts with God's "I am that I am" from Exodus, positioning Iago as a devilish figure who embodies deceit and malevolence.

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In act 1, scene 1, Iago swears to Roderigo that he despises Othello for overlooking him and rewarding the handsome, inexperienced Michael Cassio with the title of lieutenant. Iago believes that he deserves to be second-in-command and resents Othello for his decision. Despite Iago's negative feelings for Othello, he refuses to quit the military in order to get revenge. Iago explains to Roderigo that he will "follow him [Othello] to serve [his] turn upon him." Iago is essentially saying that he plans on taking advantage of Othello by pretending to be his loyal servant while he simultaneously masterminds a wicked scheme that will lead to Othello's demise. Iago proceeds to describe himself as a seemingly obedient servant whose primary intentions are self-serving. Iago concludes by telling Roderigo that it is best he conceals his emotions before announcing,

I am not what I am. (Shakespeare, 1.1.67)

Iago's famous line highlights his deceptive nature and presents him as the consummate villain. Iago's quote also alludes to the Biblical interaction between Moses and God on Mt. Sinai. In the Book of Exodus, Moses asks God his name, and God replies, "I am that I am" (Ex. 3.14). Iago's response is the direct opposite of God's reply, which presents him as the devil or a character with demonic features and values. Similar to the devil, Iago is deceitful, malevolent, and cruel. Iago lies with ease and carefully executes his revenge by turning Othello against his wife while harming everyone involved in his scheme. Iago's famous line also foreshadows the deceptive techniques he will exercise while manipulating Othello into believing that he is a loyal, benevolent servant while he simultaneously plots his demise.

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Iago says the phrase at the beginning of act 1, scene 1 during a discussion with a man called Roderigo, whom he had been trying to help marry Desdemona.

Roderigo has just found out that Desdemona has married the moor Othello and is angry that Iago has let this happen. Iago insists that he hates Othello and would never have let it happen on purpose. Othello had overlooked him for the position of Lieutenant, preferring a Florentine called Michael Cassio, whom Iago says has "never set a squadron in a field."

When Rodrigo asks why he doesn't just quit the military, Iago claims he has a better plan—"I follow him to serve my turn upon him." In other words, he is following him to take advantage of him. While pretending to be Othello's dutiful servant, he is really only looking at ways he can get rich off of him—"I am not what I am."

The phrase has a second meaning. It alludes to a passage in Exodus in the Old Testament when God tells Moses "I am that I am." He is basically telling Moses that as God, he hides nothing. So by turning around God's words, Iago is presenting himself as some kind of devil—a person who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

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In this quote Iago is clarifying to Roderigo that he is merely pretending to be a loyal underling to Othello, and in actuality is only looking out for himself. Iago is getting Roderigo to trust him by convincing him that he also hates Othello. Although Iago does truly seem to hate Othello, he has another reason for bonding with Roderigo. Iago plans on using Roderigo to help destroy Othello, and thus he requires that both men trust him implicitly. 

However, this line of Iago's is much more than an attempt to win over Roderigo. This quote sets the backdrop for all of Iago's evil deeds and explains why people continuously have faith in him. Iago is terribly good at playing whatever role he must, even if it is demeaning, in order to carry out his disastrous plans. 

In addition, this line foreshadows the rest of the play, particularly the ending. Ironically, Iago contrasts himself to Othello by saying that he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve as Othello does, but rather he hides his true nature. However, this line turns out to be somewhat untrue because Othello also reveals himself to be something other than what he'd been proclaiming. Othello has an intense self-righteousness that gets him out of some messes, but eventually dooms him completely. Despite the moral superiority that he professes to have, he gives way to destructive jealousy and distrust. If Othello had truly been a righteous man, then he would have had faith in his wife Desdemona, who he was supposed to love without condition, and wouldn't have killed her. Instead, he commits murder, a serious crime that such a "good" man should have been incapable of, and then kills himself. 

Ultimately, it turns out that declaration that Iago so proudly states "I am not what I am" is indicative of both himself and the man he despises so very much. 

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