Honesty and duplicity

A constant theme

Othello is a play about how people are judged by others. Some have reputations which ensnare, whilst others are proved to be essentially honest. Even the ‘good’ people brush people off with evasions or half-truths, as Cassio does to Bianca and Desdemona does regarding the handkerchief. Emilia fails to tell the truth when her mistress is searching for her lost keepsake. More seriously, the play is set in motion by Desdemona and Othello’s underhand courtship and marriage. Othello is a play which demonstrates the tragic consequences of deceit and perceived betrayal.

Iago’s reputation

Iago has a reputation for honesty; everyone believes he is trustworthy and can be relied upon in any situation. Othello speaks of him in Act 1 Scene 3:
So please your grace, my ensign.
A man he is of honesty and trust.     
Iago is referred to as honest over fifty times in the play, by almost every character. Othello calls him ‘honest Iago’ as early as Act 1 Scene 3, and trusts him throughout the play. Even in Act 5 Scene 2, after he has killed Desdemona and when Emilia stoutly defends Desdemona’s innocence, he still maintains he is right because Iago said so:
My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago.     
Othello even tells Cassio to trust his ensign in Act 2 Scene 3: ‘Iago is most honest.’ 

Trustworthy Iago

There are several reasons for Othello’s naïve trusting of his ensign:
  • Firstly, Iago is in the position of Othello’s personal servant, who, Othello would assume, would naturally put his master’s interests before anything else and tell him only the truth
  • Then, Iago is a fellow soldier who has fought alongside Othello in many campaigns and has proved his trustworthiness in battle
  • Iago always shows himself humble and eager to serve Othello in any way, never revealing the evil side of his character to his superior officer.
Thus Othello finds it easy to trust Iago and when he has to dismiss Cassio because of a drunken brawl, the general trusts Iago’s version of events:
     I know, Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio. (Act 2 Scene 3)

Othello’s isolation

After Cassio has been dismissed, Othello has no one else in whom to confide except his wife and ensign. And once Iago leads him to doubt her faithfulness, implying that she, like all her sex, are not to be easily trusted, he leans on Iago’s advice and guidance more and more. The insecure general needs affirmation which he gains in the pivotal Act 3 Scene 3, where Iago claims that he is honest only because of his love for Othello:
But sith I am entered in this cause so far,
Pricked to’t by foolish honesty and love,
I will go on.     
Othello is completely fooled and only realises the truth when Emilia tells him that she gave the handkerchief to Iago. But it is too late: he has already murdered Desdemona and Iago has had his revenge.

Iago’s duplicity

Shakespeare allows the audience to see through Iago right from his first long speech in Act 1 Scene 1, in which he demonstrates his bitter spirit towards Othello and envy of Cassio, who was promoted in his place. He openly acknowledges that, as a ‘follower’ rather than a ‘master’, he is only ‘trimm’d in forms and visages of duty,’; in reality ‘I follow but myself’.
Iago is intent on revenge against both Cassio and Othello. One of his motives appears to be greed, which allies him with the arch betrayer, Judas (see Betrayal)At first he confides in Roderigo, but because Roderigo is a useful agent in his plot, he soon confides in no-one but himself. Thus the audience have direct access to his thoughts and plotting, via his many soliloquies. They are in the awful position of knowing how Iago distorts the truth yet not being able to do anything about it. In Act 2 Scene 3, Iago even indulges in a mock debate with the audience, where he asks them rhetorical questions and answers them with a fiendish logic. Twice he asks how he can be called a villain when he is only giving Cassio sound advice, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was he who got Cassio into trouble in the first place. 
Iago’s duplicity is like that of Lucifer, the fallen angel whose dazzling brightness concealed evil intentions:
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now; (Act 2 Scene 3)    
Iago knows himself and arrogantly pursues his goal, confident in the knowledge that he can lie and lie again, and yet be believed by everyone he is determined to destroy.

Othello’s naïvety

An essential ingredient to the success of Iago’s plan is the fact that Othello will believe his lies. Iago is confident of this because he knows his master too well. In the closing speech of Act 1 Scene 3, he accurately summarises Othello’s naïvety:
The Moor is of a free and open nature, 
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose
As asses are.     
And so Othello is led on exactly as Iago plans, and the tragedy occurs because an honest couple (Desdemona is equally trusting) cannot appreciate that they are served by a consummate liar, motivated by hatred and revenge. 

The triumph of evil

Othello demonstrates that the essential honesty of Othello and Desdemona’s love, and the hitherto honest career of Cassio, can be defeated by duplicity. Language itself loses its integrity:
  • Words are repeated until their meaning becomes clouded
  • With dramatic irony Iago sometimes actually states the truth but his words are not correctly interpreted. 
Duplicity thrives on verbal sleight of hand. That is why, at the end, Iago becomes desperate to stop Emilia speaking (the truth) and retreats into silence when the web of his lies is exposed. The honest truth comes too little, too late.
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