Iago and Honesty in Othello
April 21, 1999
Iago uses the word honest in act three of Othello in three primary ways. The first way he uses it is to mean honourable, about Cassio. He uses this meaning of the word to force Othello to doubt Cassio s honesty, and question his hounorablility. The second way is to mean faithful, both about Desdemona and Cassio. Iago uses it in the context that the two may be truthful, again to make Othello doubt. The third way is Iago s most effective use, which is to use honest in the context to mean truthful, as in, he has told Othello the truth. However, Shakespeare has created tremendous dramatic irony, for we know that Iago is being anything except truthful. The three uses of the word honest are used largely in the subtext of the act, they are used by Iago to force Othello to question his wife s integrity, and honesty. Shakespeare uses the word by Iago to plant tremendous doubt in Othello s mind. The word is also used by Iago in the action line. His objective is constantly to make Othello think things without actually being told them, and Iago s parroting of the word and constant useage do this quite nicely.
Iago initially uses the word honest to mean honourable, in reference to Cassio. Othello has asked him if he [Cassio] is not honest? To which Iago parrots back Honest my lord? This usage is constant with what Othello means, whether Cassio is honourable or not. However, Iago uses the word to cast doubt on Othello. By parroting it back, he is making it seem to Othello that he does not want to answer the question, that he doesn t want to tell Othello something. This is seen in the subtext that Iago wishes to create. This use of it also contributes to Iago s objective, to make Othello think the opposite, that Cassio is dishonourable, even though this contradicts what Iago later says. Shakespeare has built up tremendous subtext for Iago and Othello around this simple word in this case. Iago manages to, without saying really anything, force Othello to believing that Cassio should in fact be doubted, for his honesty. The second usage of this meaning also carries significant dramatic irony with it. Iago uses it to refence to his own honour, telling Othello that although he does not like the job Othello has given him, to find out if Desdemona is cheating, he has been Pricke d to t by foolish honesty, and love. Iago means that he will continue to tell Othello the truth. However, Shakespeare has created intense dramatic irony, for we see that Iago has been anything but telling Othello the complete truth, rather he is telling him only half.
The second use of the word is directed towards both Cassio and Desdemona, in separate instances.
The first time is directed to Cassio. Othello continues to question Iago about Cassio s honesty, to which Iago replies I dare be sworn I think that he is honest. Iago knows that Cassio is honest, at least in the terms that Othello would care about. However, the specific wording that Shakespeare has chosen seems allows Othello to read into Iago s speech, that while Iago has no evidence to prove otherwise, he doubts Cassio s honesty. Iago has also changed the meaning of the word slightly, to mean that Cassio is faithful, that he is not sleeping with Desdemona. It is as if Iago is having a fun time, pretending that he is not sure if Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. However, Iago himself remains truthful to Othello, in the sense that he is not lying to him. However, his word usage suggests otherwise. He does this later on as well, when Othello asks Iago if he believes that Cassio is as he appears to be, i.e. not having an affair. Iago again says that he think[s] Cassio s an honest man. Iago knows Cassio is honest in this sense of the word, in the sense that he is not cheating on Othello. However, the subtext around these two lines is again used to make Othello believe that Iago doubts his own words, that while he does not have proof otherwise, he is doubting himself. This accomplishes what Iago wishes to achieve, to plant the idea s into Othello s head without actually straightout lying. This is different from the previous usage because of the meaning of the word has switched from honourable to faithful.
The third usage is also the most effective. The word is used in its most common form, with truthful as its meaning. However, this meaning is used continually by Iago to almost lie straight to Othello. He first uses it to tell Othello that if it were not in his (Othello s) best interest, Iago would sacrifice his manhood, honesty, or wisdom. Shakespeare has created dramatic irony, for while Iago is telling Othello that he would make these sacrifices in Othello s best interest, we know that he is doing the exact opposite. We know that Iago is making Othello see things that are not actually there, that he is leading Othello to believe that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Othello believes that Iago means that he would lie to protect him, as Iago wishes him to, however, we know that just the opposite is actually occuring. Iago again plays with Othello s mind later, telling him that Honesty s a fool. Iago is almost laughing in Othello s face. He tells Othello that honesty will get a man nowhere, something Iago obviously believes based on his actions in this play. He uses the word to try to persuade Othello to find out about Desdemona, but he is actually using it to justify his own actions to the audience, Shakespeare has him say this line almost to provide the incentive for Iago to lie to Othello. Shakespeare is showing us the way Iago s mind thinks with this line, that in order to get ahead, a man must lie. This usage is used by Iago to create the subtext again, to make Othello think that Iago is being completely truthful with him, although we know that he has not.
Shakespeare has Iago use the word honest in three different forms to greatly contribute to the subtext between Othello and Iago, and to further the action line for Othello. Iago uses the word almost laughingly behind Othello s back, telling him that he has been driven to honesty, when he know that Iago is only telling Othello half truths. Shakespeare uses the word effectively to create dramatic irony.