“I am not what I am”

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I seem to have spent a lot of time in Venice and Cyprus this week talking about handkerchiefs – not literally, sadly – but through teaching classes on ‘Othello’. This play always provokes lively debate, but interestingly it is rarely Othello who dominates class discussion. All three of our visiting schools this week thought that Iago is the most intriguing character, with Desdemona coming in a close second. But why?

We agreed that both of these characters share an enigmatic quality, speaking some of the play’s most mysterious lines. They leave us asking questions – forever wanting more. Iago delights in ambiguity, making something of an art form out of elusive expression– “I am not what I am”. Desdemona’s dying line, “Nobody, I myself, farewell”, seems similarly intangible.

Iago, the master Machiavellian ingratiates himself with theatre audiences – we are entertained by his skullduggery, safe in the knowledge that he will come a cropper before the play is through. Desdemona, the rebellious innocent, charms and frustrates in equal measure. Both characters provoke strong reactions – and split opinion. Perhaps this is their fascination.

So where does this leave Othello? Othello undoubtedly speaks some of the play’s most beautiful poetry – he woos, then wars, with words. He is by turns mythic and monstrous – a colossal character, presenting a hefty challenge for any performer. But for some reason, in my experience at least, students see him lacking in X Factor. As has so often been the case in the play’s stage history – Iago continues to steal the show.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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