The Themes of Reputation and Honor in Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

Trying to prove to Roderigo that he really does hate Othello, Iago says that there are men who serve their masters only to get what they can, "and when they have lin'd their coats / Do themselves homage" (1.1.53-54). In other words, they do themselves honor by being dishonorable to those that they serve. We would call such persons embezzlers or worse, but Iago sees them in another light: "These fellows have some soul; / And such a one do I profess myself" (1.1.54-55). He ends the speech by saying, "I am not what I am" (1.1.65), and his actions in the rest of the play show the truth of that statement. He constantly uses his good reputation for dishonorable purposes. [Scene Summary]

Trying to provoke Othello's anger against Brabantio, Iago tells him that Brabantio "prated, / And spoke . . . scurvy and provoking terms / Against your honour" (1.2.6-8). Then he warns Othello that Brabantio will try to annul his marriage to Desdemona. Othello replies,
                   Let him do his spite:
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. 'Tis yet to know,--
Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,
I shall promulgate--I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
[deserts, merits]
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reach'd . . . .   (1.2.17-24)
His services to Venice have earned him a good reputation, and he seems sure that his reputation will protect him from Brabantio. Also, though he knows that it is not honorable to boast of it, he is sure that he has natural honor as a descendant of kings and as a good man.

Later in the scene, when Brabantio and his posse catch up with Othello, Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic and drugs on Desdemona. To Brabantio's way of thinking, that's the only thing that makes sense. He finds it incredible, he says to Othello, that Desdemona "Would ever have, to incur a general mock, / Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou" (1.2.69-71). We would call a "general mock" a "bad reputation." [Scene Summary]

Pleading with the Duke to be allowed to accompany Othello to Cyprus, Desdemona says, "I saw Othello's visage in his mind, / And to his honour and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate" (1.3.252-254). By saying "I saw Othello's visage in his mind," Desdemona shows that she understands and rejects the bigotry that is directed at him. A person's "visage" is his face, and she understands that most Europeans consider black to be ugly, but she saw past his face to his honor and courage, which she adores.

Supporting Desdemona's request that she be allowed to accompany him to Cyprus, Othello assures the Duke that love would never interfere with his business. If it did, he's willing to let housewives use his helmet for a frying pan, "And all indign and base adversities / Make head against my estimation!" (1.3.273-274). In other words, if his relations with his wife took anything away from the performance of his duties, any of many small problems ("base adversities") would be enough to ruin his reputation ("estimation").

At the end of the same scene, as Iago is hatching his plan against Othello, he reflects that "He holds me well / The better shall my purpose work on him"(1.3.390-391). He has a good reputation with Othello, and that will help him betray his trust. [Scene Summary]

In Cyprus, observing the perfect harmony between the Othello and Desdemona, Iago comments in an aside, "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am." (2.1.199-201). The "pegs" to which he refers are the tuning pegs on a stringed instrument. Their love is the instrument on which Iago is planning to loosen ("set down") the pegs until the harmony is turned into discord. And to accomplish his purpose he's planning to use his reputation for being "honest." [Scene Summary]

Having given Cassio the job of making sure that the festivities in Cyprus don't get out of hand, Othello says to him, "Good Michael, look you to the guard to-night: / Let's teach ourselves that honourable stop, / Not to outsport discretion" (2.3.1-3). The "honourable stop" is self-restraint, but as the scene progresses, Cassio loses his self-restraint and that costs him his reputation.

Iago has planned Cassio's downfall, and in a soliloquy he says that Cassio will share guard duty with three Cypriots "That hold their honours in a wary distance" (2.3.56). Iago believes that because these three hold their honor so dear, any show of disrespect from Cassio will get him into trouble. Things don't turn out exactly as Iago predicts, but close enough. Roderigo insults Cassio, and Cassio beats him for that. Then Montano tries to intervene and tells Cassio that he is drunk; for that insult Cassio wounds Montano. Thus, in defense of his honor, Cassio commits a dishonorable act.

After Cassio has gotten drunk, wounded Montano, and lost his job, Iago asks him if he's hurt. Cassio answers that he has wound that can't be healed: "Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!" (2.3.262-265). Iago is not impressed. He tells Cassio that reputation is "oft got without merit, and lost without deserving" (2.3.269-270), and that the only thing that matters is what a person thinks of himself. [Scene Summary]

Once Iago has dropped enough hints to arouse Othello's jealousy, Othello demands to know exactly what he's thinking. Iago craftily leads him on by pretending to be extremely reluctant to say anything bad about anyone. As part of this pretense, Iago says that he wouldn't want to harm anyone's reputation, because a reputation is precious:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.   (3.3.155-161)
Of course these moralistic thoughts are in stark contrast to what Iago said to Cassio about reputation. Iago told Cassio that reputation was worthless in order to make Cassio forget his sense of shame and approach Desdemona about getting his job back. Now Iago tells Othello that "good name" is of immense worth, not to protect anyone's reputation, but to plant the idea that Othello is in danger of losing his own good name.

A little later, pursuing the same strategy, Iago advises Othello to not be suspicious, to just wait and see how strongly Desdemona urges Othello to restore Cassio to his position. This is the speech:

My lord, I would I might entreat your honour
To scan this thing no further; leave it to time:
Though it be fit that Cassio have his place,
For sure, he fills it up with great ability,
Yet, if you please to hold him off awhile,
You shall by that perceive him and his means:
Note, if your lady strain his entertainment
With any strong or vehement importunity;
Much will be seen in that. In the mean time,
Let me be thought too busy in my fears--
As worthy cause I have to fear I am--
And hold her free, I do beseech your honour.   (3.3.244-255)
We can see that Iago is setting up Othello. Iago has already seen Desdemona make a strong plea for Cassio, and so he knows that she'll probably do it again. Iago is urging Othello to take that as proof that she's having an affair with Cassio. In addition, Iago begins and ends the speech by addressing Othello as "your honour." "Your honour" is an appropriate form of address, but this is the only place that Iago uses it, and he is using it as a subtle reminder to Othello that his honour is at stake.

Later in the scene, when Iago has lured Othello deep into the agony of jealousy, Othello reflects on the way his image of Desdemona has changed by saying that "Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face" (3.3.386-388). Diana is goddess of the moon, so "Dian's visage" is the pale and shining face of the moon. [Scene Summary]

When Cassio is asking Desdemona to intervene on his behalf with Othello, Cassio describes Othello as a man "Whom I with all the office [duty] of my heart / Entirely honour" (3.4.113-114). Although Cassio says this in order to get his job back, he's sincere; he does truly honor Othello and never doubts that Othello was justified in firing him. [Scene Summary]

Pretending to not know the significance of the handkerchief, Iago remarks that if it's Desdemona's handkerchief, she may give to any man. Othello says, "She is protectress of her honour too: / May she give that?" (4.1.14-15), and Iago replies that her honor is an "essence that's not seen" (4.1.16), "But, for the handkerchief --" (4.1.18). Iago wants Othello to think about that handkerchief; Othello can't see the unseen essence of her honor, but the handkerchief is something which can be seen. And so Iago lures Othello into equating the handkerchief with Desdemona's honor.

At the end of the same scene, when Othello loses control of himself and strikes Desdemona in public, Lodovico is shocked and amazed. He asks, "Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate / Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake?" (4.1.264-266). What Lodovico has just seen doesn't fit with Othello's reputation. [Scene Summary]

When Emilia reveals the truth about the handkerchief, Othello attacks Iago, but he is restrained and his sword is taken away from him by Montano and Gratiano. Othello says, "I am not valiant neither, / But every puny whipster gets my sword: / But why should honour outlive honesty? / Let it go all" (5.2.243-246). A "whipster" is a contemptible person, one who can make a show of whipping out his sword, but is no good in a real battle. Othello's phrase "puny whipster" expresses contempt for Montano and Gratiano, but much more for himself. He has just let the sword go, and with good reason. His reputation as a valiant man, his "honour," is hollow without true integrity, "honesty." He not only lost the sword, he deserved to lose it.

A little later, Lodovico who has taken charge of things, says to Othello, "O thou Othello, thou wert once so good, / Fall'n in the practise [evil plot] of a damned slave, / What shall be said to thee?" (5.2.291-293). Where Lodovico uses the word "to" in "what shall be said to thee" we would use "of" or "about"; Lodovico is asking Othello to explain himself, to say what he should be called. Othello responds, "Why, any thing: / An honourable murderer, if you will; / For nought I did in hate, but all in honour" (5.2.295). This short speech is extremely important to the interpretation of Othello's character. If he's justifying himself, we're going to think less of him. We are unlikely to think that there's any such thing as an honorable murderer, and earlier in the scene he didn't seem to think so, either. When Desdemona refused to confess to anything, Othello said "O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart, / And makest me call what I intend to do / A murder, which I thought a sacrifice" (5.2.63-65). And when he could have used his sword to kill Gratiano and escape, he didn't. He said, "why should honour outlive honesty? / Let it go all" (5.2.245-246). In short, it seemed that for Othello, murder and honor didn't go together. Now, however, it sounds as if he's justifying himself by saying that he is an "honourable murderer" and that he did nothing "in hate." This is hard to swallow because we have heard him express fierce hatred of Desdemona and we have seen his rage when he murdered her.

On the other hand, the phrase "honourable murderer" may be ironic. His first response to Lodovico is "Why, any thing," as if there was nothing that could be said about him that could express the truth. Then, after he uses the phrase "honourable murderer," he adds, "if you will," as though it doesn't really matter what others think of him. He may still be grappling with himself about what he is, and in using the phrase "honourable murderer" he may be making a bitterly ironic comment on his own mistake about what it means to be honorable.

Later in the same scene, when Lodovico is ready to take Othello as a prisoner to Venice, Othello makes everyone stop and listen to what he has to say. "Soft you," says Othello, "a word or two before you go" (5.2.338). "Soft" means "wait a minute," and the rest of the men do wait and listen. He starts, "I have done the state some service, and they know't," as though he thinks that his reputation for service should be weighed against his crime, but then he changes his mind, saying, "No more of that" (5.2.340). He now wants to speak of what his reputation will be:

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.    (5.2.341-356)
With the word "thus" Othello kills himself. [Scene Summary]