Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2010
Early modern tragic subjectivity is created out of the collision between the individual and the social order. Its form owes as much to that order as it does to the titanic energies animating the tragic subject. Iago provides a succinct description of tragic subjectivity: 'I am not what I am' (Othello, 1.1.65). This dizzying articulation of selfhood draws a distinction between the character's social position and the resentments and aspirations that drive him. (For rhetorical economy, these will be referred to as a character's 'desires'.) Iago's line could be parsed as suggesting, 'I, the Machiavellian schemer, am not what I, the Moor's ensign, am'. Such a reading would suggest that Iago's true identity lurks behind a false one; the line would mean, 'I am not what I appear to be'. However, Iago's statement of self-identification is also a statement of self-negation. He is not what he is.
Today, we tend to assume a core of selfhood stands behind or beneath the social roles we play. The early modern approach to selfhood is importantly different. Selfhood both emerges out of one's relations with others and is defined by one's social position (as Iago recognises: 'Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago' [1.1.57]). Consequently, while we might view actions or desires that violate the terms of a given social role as expressive of a core self beneath that role, the early moderns would understand them to be destructive of a socially defined self. Renaissance tragedies represent the effects of such actions and desires on the self, with Iago even proposing two selves at odds with one another: 'I am not what I am'.