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Shakespeare - Is Iago an Honest Man?

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Iago - An Honest Man?

Honest Origin:

Middle English (originally the sense 'held in or deserving of honour'): via Old French from Latin honestus, from honos.

It can be said that once the first lie has been spun, a web of lies will follow steadily and rapidly. This is evident in the case of Iago - the companion in arms and confidant of the Moor in Shakespeare's Othello; which Professor John Wain calls "a tragedy of misunderstanding". But is the misunderstanding between the characters of the play only, or with the audience as well?

The earliest reference to "Othello; the Moor of Venice", records the King's Players acting before the Court of King James I on the 1st November 1604. The tragedy of betrayal, love, racism, jealousy and honour is one of the great tragedy themed plays by William Shakespeare. Othello is a highly respected General in the Venetian Army and elopes with a Duke's daughter before being assigned a mission against the Turkish fleet. Iago is Othello's ambitious friend who is revengefully jealous when Michael Cassio is promoted by Othello, over himself. Filled with jealousy, Iago plots revenge on Cassio and Othello by using the Moor's new wife, Desdemona. The play embarks on a themed journey of suspicions, schemes and violence.

Iago has two identities in this tragedy. The characters on stage know an honest Iago: the trusted and respected friend, colleague, confidant and husband and the audience knows a dishonest Iago: the deceitful, jealous, calculating, enemy and foe.

There is emphasis on Iago's honesty throughout the play by the other characters, yet the two identities merge into one with the audience only. Ironically it is only the audience who can distinguish between the truthful, honest Iago and deceitful, dishonest Iago. William Empson, in his essay "Honest in Othello" notes that there are "fifty-two uses of honest and honesty in Othello" which he calls a "queer business" (Wain, 1971). Shakespeare's overuse or play on the word honest shows his intentions to highlight how people can interpret the word to their own meaning and/or benefit. Shakespeare applies honest and dishonesty in a dramatic irony to the definition of which the audience define honest. Wain goes further to mention that all characters call Iago honest, once or twice or in reference, but to Othello it becomes an obsession. Of course, Othello's trust in Iago inevitably becomes his downfall but maybe the interpretation could be that Othello is not an honest man himself and has convinced himself, through comparison of his own lack of honesty and negative attributes that Iago can be trusted and is honest in contrast to him.

In "Shakespearean Tragedy", John Drakakis introduces Shakespearean tragedy as "not just a form of writing, but a form of representation: a representation of all of those symbolic structures through which order articulates itself" (1992). Possibly, the overuse of a word which can be interpreted in various different terms conveys the complexity of tragedy, how the negative attributes and emotions of humans can "articulate" in a spiral of misfortune, resulting in devastating consequences.

Presently synonyms of honest are: truthful, just, incorruptible, trustworthy, fair, straight, forward, candid and pure. These words that the characters feel are apt for the companion, confidant and friend they know, whilst the antonyms of honest are dishonest and corrupt. From the beginning of the play, the characters believe in the honest Iago: he is reputable - he has a good reputation in the military; he is humble; plain and unadorned. This is true of Iago and evident for audience and characters but by the end of the play, the characters are introduced to the dishonest Iago: who is not genuine or honourable. The audience however have been allowed into the play of both honest and dishonest Iago by the soliloquy technique that Shakespeare uses. The paradox of these two epitomes, comes together as the dishonest Iago (that the audience know), he who is dishonest and conniving is actually the honest Iago, because his intentions; beliefs and opinions are relayed to the audience only. When the tragedy enfolds at the end, it comes as no shock to the audience as they have already witnessed the real Iago.

Othello first mentions honest Iago in Act 1, scene 3 "A man he is of honesty and trust", setting a theme of his distinguished faith in Iago, who by the end of the scene dismisses Othello as too trusting; "The Moor...that thinks men honest, that but seem to be so". Othello is so taken in by Iago because he has shown himself to be trustworthy

and in Act 2, scene 2 when Iago's plan of Cassio's downfall is executed, his play on words that "I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth, Than it should do offence to Michael Cassio", reinforces this trust and Othello is witness to Iago's caring, loyal and honest nature.

It is worth mentioning that the word Honest or honesty is mentioned five times in Act 1 (the introduction); eleven times in Act 2 (the development); twenty-three times in Act 3 (the crisis); six times in Act 4 (the denouement) and seven times in Act 5 (the finale). The over play of the word in Act 3 when Iago's plot and web of suspicion is spun, has a dramatic irony in relation to the definition of the word. His soliloquies mention his suspicions being just suspicions but with the miraculous overuse of the word, the effect and impact is enough to convince Othello, or at least poison Othello's mind to an extent, that murder and revenge are the only options.

The irony of the honest Iago for the audience is only so strong because of Shakespeare's extraordinary way of involving the audience and the way "Othello" is written - for the audience. Whether it is the



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