Honour and reputation

Obedience before self-interest

Soldiers are taught to obey in all things and to uphold the reputation of their force: 
  • Although Iago resents Cassio’s promotion instead of him, ‘’Tis the curse of service’ that he must continue to obey both Cassio and Othello as his superior officers, only pursuing revenge against them by stealth 
  • Even though he has just married Desdemona, Othello is subject to the Duke’s command to sail for Cyprus and confront the Turks in sea battle 
  • On effectively his wedding night, Othello is still expected to undertake guard duties, until he deputes Cassio to stand in for him, upon which Iago comments unfavourably: ‘Our general cast us thus early for the love of his Desdemona’ (Act 2 Scene 3)
  • Othello is expected to liaise with Montano, the governor of Cyprus, and ensure his troops behave as good ambassadors of Venice. This means leaving his wedding bed to deal with a drunken brawl and punishing Cassio severely for injuring the governor.
These incidents within Othello demonstrates the honourable expectation that, at all times, soldiers will put the common good, or their immediate military objective, before personal considerations. Juxtaposed against this dutiful background, Iago stands out as someone who has decided that ‘I follow but myself’.


Army officers should always act with honour, which Othello has maintained during his rise through the Venetian armed forces. So when Lodovico arrives in Cyprus with orders for Othello to return to Venice, he is shocked and horrified to see Othello strike Desdemona, remonstrating:
My lord, this would not be believed in Venice,
Though I should swear I saw’t. ’Tis very much.
Make her amends, she weeps. ..
Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all-in-all sufficient? (Act 4 Scene 1)     
Perhaps this rebuke has effect, given that Othello enters Desdemona’s bedroom with a greater degree of courtesy and ostensibly motivated by the code of honour which upholds his fellow soldiers (and all men) at the ‘sacrifice’ of his own desires: ‘she must die, else she’ll betray more men.’ He then pursues the violent smothering of his wife so as to be ‘merciful’: ‘I would not have thee linger in thy pain.’ Later he explains to Emilia that he would not have proceeded but for his certain evidence:
O! I were damn’d beneath all depth in hell
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity.      
Othello clearly believes that he is only motivated by honour – but the audience has witnessed ugly passions, language and behaviour which belies the general’s self-belief. Emilia sums up Othello’s faults as being:
  • ‘rash’ (too hastily led by passion)
  • a ‘dolt’ (too gullible)
  • a ‘murderous coxcomb’ (too vain and aggressive)
  • ‘cruel’ (too viciously judgmental). 
These are not the attributes of an honourable soldier.
When he is exposed as Desdemona’s murderer, Othello’s moral descent is noted by Lodovico:
O thou, Othello, that was once so good,
Fall’n in the practice of a cursed slave,
What shall be said to thee? (Act 5 Scene 2)     
In response, Othello maintains his claim:
An honourable murderer, if you will;
For nought did I in hate, but all in honour     
He seeks to maintain the soldierly code of honour by committing suicide:
Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d;
Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt,     
and asks his colleagues to recall that he has ‘done the state some service’. Yet Othello’s tears speak of a deep shame and personal distress. Perhaps he realises that, ironically, he has actually brought dishonour upon himself and the whole state of Venice.


Honest reputations

Reputation in an ongoing issue through the play, not surprising given its macho setting and cast:
  • Othello is respected as ‘valiant’ and Montano, who has ‘serv’d him’ admires him as a man who, ‘commands / Like a full soldier’
  • Based on her ‘judgment in an honest face’, Desdemona sees Cassio for what he is:
..     one that truly loves [Othello],   

That errs in ignorance and not in cunning,     
Cassio is distraught when he realises that his drunken behaviour has let down his commanding officer as well as his own honour:
O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself,
and what remains is bestial     
  • It is important for the tragedy that Desdemona’s reputation is utterly unstained. In fact, according to Cassio, her personal qualities exceed what is said of her, as:  
..       a maid
That paragons description and wild fame;
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
(Act 2 Scene 1)     
This praise might be anticipated from an extravagant courtier like Cassio, but even according to Emilia, who has observed her intimately, Desdemona is ‘heavenly true’, ‘the sweetest innocent’ and ‘chaste’, absolutely undeserving of her punishment.
These are reputations that are a true reflection of the character of their possessors. 

Wrongful reputations

However, there are also reputations unfairly gained:
  • Othello is unfairly defined in Brabantio’s eyes by the negative reputation of ‘Moors’ for lasciviousness and witchcraft (Act 1 Scenes 2 & 3)
  • Cassio’s one episode of drunkenness is manipulated by Iago to tar his whole conduct so that Montano believes it is ‘an ingraft infirmity’ (Act 2 Scene 3)
  • Iago is noted for his abhorrence of ‘filthy deeds’, his honesty and trustworthiness. That the complete reverse is true demonstrates how effectively he dissimulates throughout the drama. 


In Act 3 Scene 3, Iago makes a telling comment about the value of personal integrity:
Men should be what they seem,
Or those that be not, would they might seem none.     
He correctly identifies the need to be the same in character as in appearance, so that ‘what you see is what you get.’ In Act 2 Scene 3, he says to Cassio:
Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser.     
What he is arguing for here is that it doesn’t matter whether a person’s reputation is good but whether they themselves are intrinsically good or not. He clear-headedly sees through the mask of pretension that people create – because he’s a fake himself.
Yet Iago is jealous of his own good reputation, because he knows it enables him to continue being treacherous and faithless in all his relationships and still achieve his villainous ends. In Act 3 Scene 3 he defends the importance society places on a person’s ‘Good name’:
Good name in man or woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; …….
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.    
It is part of the tragedy of Othello that a character can have such clear moral vision – and choose to pervert it at every turn. The lesson is clear: reputation is not to be relied upon, honour can be lost.
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