Honesty Is the Best Policy (Hear That, Iago?)
You've probably noticed how the word "honest" shows up all over the place in Othello. By poet and literary critic William Empson's count, there are fifty-two uses of "honest" and "honesty" throughout the play. If you're reading this, that's way more than one "honest" per page. That's a whole lot of honesty.
Like the word "nothing" in King Lear, "honest" has a wide range of meanings in Othello. At times, it refers to chastity, the question of whether a woman is "honest" or whether she is promiscuous. At other times, the word refers to personal honesty: whether or not a person is telling the truth. It can also refer to whether or not a person is a good and loving friend—to be fair, if a person isn't honest, they're probably not that great of a friend.
These meanings come together in some ironic ways throughout the play. The clearest example of this is how Iago uses personal dishonesty (lies and deceit) to convince Othello that his wife is sexually dishonest (cheating on her husband), all while pretending to be looking out for the best interests of his so-called friend.
Check out how Iago plays the martyr when Othello warns him that he, Iago, better not be lying about Desdemona:
—O wretched fool,
That liv'st to make thine honesty a vice!—
O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world:
To be direct and honest is not safe.—
I thank you for this profit; and from hence
I'll love no friend, sith love breeds such offense.
Nay, stay. Thou shouldst be honest.
I should be wise; for honesty's a fool
And loses that it works for.
By the world,
I think my wife be honest and think she is not; (3.3.429-439)
You can see the different meanings of "honest" throughout this passage: Othello urges his buddy that he "shouldst be honest" (i.e. be a pal) and also laments that he thought his wife "be honest" (faithful). Iago, of course, is doing what he does best and is lying through his teeth.
Honesty In Othello By William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, is the depiction of the spiraling downfall of the Venetian general as he falls victim to the destructive consequences of another man’s envy. The story is ultimately fueled by the vindictive nature of the antagonist, Iago, as he attempts to seek revenge on Othello for promoting another man as his lieutenant. It is suggested that, prior to the story, Iago was an honest and trusted character; however, with feelings of degradation and even humiliation, Iago twists his seemingly “good” characteristics and assets, such as intuition, perception, and cunning, into tools of evil and betrayal. The antagonist acts as a puppet master as he fabricates circumstances and situations, allowing him to merely plant misconstrued ideas into the other characters’ minds. Ultimately, Iago’s jealousy and preoccupation with revenge ignites conflict and drives the characters to their downfall.
Prior to the play, Othello had promoted Michael Cassio to the position of his lieutenant, passing over Iago. Besides this action, there is very little to explain Iago’s hatred for Othello or his motives, showing that Iago essentially destroys the other characters for no true purpose. For example, though Iago has clarified that he is angry because Othello chose Cassio for the promotion, he later says, “And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets / He has done my office: I know not if’t be true” (I.iii.1023). In other words, Iago believes that Othello is having an affair with his wife, Emilia, although he cannot be certain. Iago does not seem to have a credible or tangible motive, but rather a few inconsistent excuses he uses to justify his actions to the audience. In fact, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge has described him as a “motiveless malignity” and “a being next to the devil, only not quite the devil” (Coleridge). It is Iago’s ability to unapologetically wreak havoc that makes him all the more terrifying because Iago was motivated into action, not by some long-term goal or serious offense, but by the slightest provocation that was not even meant to harm Iago in the first place.
Though Iago does not have a strong motive for his actions, his behavior may be explained as the consequences of insecurity. Prior to the beginning of the story, Othello had promoted Michael Cassio to the position of his lieutenant, thus passing over Iago. This simple act wounded Iago’s self-esteem, made him feel wronged, and even degraded his reputation. Most importantly, the promotion made Iago feel inferior to Cassio, making him more susceptible to the notion of revenge. Oftentimes, when people feel insecure in themselves, they talk about the person they feel inferior to, pointing out their flaws. For example, when speaking with Roderigo, Iago describes Cassio as:
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric (I.i.1003).
Here, Iago is saying that...
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