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Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Iago's "Honesty"

[Annotated list of passages related to Iago's reputation for "honesty," i.e., loyalty and truthfulness.]

When Iago explains to Roderigo that he hates Othello, Roderigo wonders why Iago is still working for Othello. Iago then goes on to explain that he's a hypocrite and proud of it. He is only pretending loyalty to Othello and is certainly not like those who loyally serve their masters all their lives and then are fired when they're too old to work. "Whip me such honest knaves" (1.1.49), Iago contemptuously exclaims. [Scene Summary]

The Duke tells Othello that he must leave for Cyprus immediately, but must also leave behind an officer to deliver documents from the Senate. Othello appoints Iago to be that officer, because "A man he is of honesty and trust" (1.3.284). A little later, Othello entrusts Iago with the responsibility of escorting Desdemona to Cyprus, and asks him to have Iago's wife be her companion. He says, "Honest Iago, / My Desdemona must I leave to thee: / I prithee, let thy wife attend on her: / And bring them after in the best advantage" (1.3.294-297). At the end of the scene, when Iago is hatching his plan against Othello, he comments that "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 the nose / As asses are" (1.3.399-402). Iago knows that Othello considers him honest, and he is planning on using that in his dishonest plans. [Scene Summary]

In Cyprus, observing the joyous reunion of Othello and Desdemona, Iago says to himself that he will wreck the lovers' harmony: "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). [Scene Summary]

When Othello reminds Cassio to keep a lid on the festivities in Cyprus, Cassio replies that he has already given orders to Iago, and Othello says approvingly that "Iago is most honest" (2.3.6) -- that is, reliable. Later, after Cassio is drunk, Iago tells Montano the lie that Cassio gets drunk every night. Montano is shocked, and thinks that Othello ought to be told. He says, "It were an honest action to say / So to the Moor" (2.3.141-142). In other words, it's something that Iago ought to do out of loyalty to Othello, but Iago replies that he won't say anything because Cassio is too much his friend.

In the same scene, after Othello stops the fight between Cassio and Montano, he says, "Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving, / Speak, who began this?" (2.3.177-178). To Othello, it appears that Iago is "grieving" over the terrible trouble that Cassio and Montano have gotten themselves into, and Othello believes that such grief is a natural, "honest" emotion. A little later, after Iago gives an account of the fight, Othello comments, "I know, Iago, / Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter, / Making it light to Cassio" (2.3.246-248). He means that Iago is so loyal to his friend Cassio that he has shaded the story to make Cassio appear in a better light. However, Othello isn't angry at Iago for doing what any friend would do; he's angry at Cassio and fires him on the spot.

Alone with Iago, Cassio moans that his reputation has been ruined, and Iago replies, "As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound" (2.3.266-267). Iago is of the opinion that Cassio is just making a big fuss about his reputation, so much of a fuss that at first Iago honestly thought that Cassio had received an actual wound. Iago then goes on to advise Cassio that he can get his job back by asking Desdemona to speak to Othello, and Cassio thanks him for the advice, whereupon Iago says, "I protest [promise you], in the sincerity of love and honest kindness" (2.3.327). In other words, Iago is giving the advice just because he really likes Cassio. Still grateful, Cassio bids Iago goodnight by saying, "Good night, honest Iago" (2.3.335). As soon as Cassio is gone and we're thinking what a hypocritical bastard Iago is, he asks sarcastically, "And what's he then that says I play the villain? / When this advice is free I give and honest" (2.3.336-337). [Scene Summary]

The morning after Cassio has lost his job, he asks Othello's servant to ask Emilia to come out and speak to him. Cassio wants Emilia to ask Desdemona to speak to him. Just as the servant leaves on his errand, Iago shows up and promises both that he will send Emilia out, and that he will keep Othello out of the way, so that Cassio can speak privately with Desdemona. Cassio, a Florentine, is grateful that Iago is treating him like a countryman, and says, "I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest" (3.1.40). [Scene Summary]

When Desdemona gives Cassio her personal promise that she will do everything she can to help him get his job back, Emilia encourages her by saying that Cassio's difficulties deeply grieve Iago. At this, Desdemona comments, "O, that's an honest fellow" (3.3.5).

Later in the scene, Iago has started to work on Othello by asking Othello a few questions, and by faking surprise at the answers. As Iago intends, Othello becomes convinced that Iago knows more than he's saying, and demands that Iago tell him all, saying, "If thou dost love me, / Show me thy thought" (3.3.116). Iago replies, "My lord, you know I love you" (3.3.117), to which Othello answers, "I know thou'rt full of love and honesty, / And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath, / Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more" (3.3.118-120). "These stops" are the significant pauses Iago has been using, as though he has been trying to decide just what he should say.

Iago continues to pretend reluctance, and says it wouldn't be good for Othello to know his thoughts, because those thoughts might be just false suspicions. Therefore, he tells Othello, "It were not for your quiet nor your good, / Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom, / To let you know my thoughts" (3.3.152-154)

Before long Iago has Othello so twisted out of shape that Othello sends him away so that he can be alone and think. As soon as Iago is gone, Othello says, "Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds"(3.3.242-243). A moment later he says of Iago, "This fellow's of exceeding honesty, / And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit, / Of human dealings" (3.3.258-260).

A while later, Othello's growing jealousy turns into anger and he threatens Iago with death and damnation if the charges against Desdemona cannot be proved. Iago handles this outburst by threatening Othello with isolation. He says, "God buy you; take mine office. O wretched fool, / That livest to make thine honesty a vice!" (3.3.375-376). "God buy you" is the grandmother of our word "goodbye," and "take mine office" means "I quit." In short, he's pretending that he's about to leave Othello all alone to solve his problem by himself. As Iago heads for the door, he talks to himself (though loud enough for Othello to hear), telling himself that he's a fool to be so honest, because his honesty has only brought him trouble. Othello doesn't respond immediately, so Iago continues with his ploy, exclaiming "O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world, / To be direct and honest is not safe" (3.3.377-378), and telling himself that friendship just means trouble.

At this, Othello crumbles. He believes that both Desdemona and Cassio have betrayed him, and he can't bear the thought of losing his last friend, so he calls Iago back, saying, "Nay, stay. Thou shouldst be honest" (3.3.381). "Thou shouldst be honest" means "you have every reason to be honest," but Iago takes "shouldst" in another sense and replies, "I should be wise, for honesty's a fool / And loses that it works for" (3.3.382-383).

A little later, when Iago has gotten Othello to ask for some proof of Desdemona's disloyalty, Iago replies, "I do not like the office [duty]: / But, sith [since] I am enter'd in this cause so far, / Prick'd [urged] to't by foolish honesty and love, / I will go on" (3.3.410-413). Then he does go on -- to tell a cock-and-bull story about a dream that Cassio had about Desdemona. [Scene Summary]

When Othello strikes Desdemona in public, Lodovico is shocked and asks Iago if Othello is always like this. Iago replies, "It is not honesty in me to speak / What I have seen and known. You shall observe him, / And his own courses will denote him so / That I may save my speech" (4.1.277-280). Iago means that because he is Othello's honest (loyal) friend he cannot honestly (truthfully) say everything he knows about Othello. If Lodovico wants to know more, he should just keep an eye on Othello. Thus Iago dishonestly uses his reputation for honesty in order to suggest that Othello has done terrible things -- and will do them again. [Scene Summary]

In the dark, Othello hears Cassio cry out and thinks that Iago has killed him. He says of Iago (not really to him): "O brave Iago, honest and just, / That hast such noble sense of thy friend's wrong! / Thou teachest me" (5.1.31-33). Othello uses the word "honest" in the sense of "loyal." He means that Iago has killed Cassio because Iago is loyal to Othello and deeply touched by what Othello has suffered. "Thou teachest me" means that Iago's killing of Cassio on Othello's behalf shows Othello that he should kill Desdemona, and he rushes off to do that. Of course Othello is absolutely wrong about honest Iago's motivations. [Scene Summary]

Just before Othello kills Desdemona, he accuses her of having an affair with Cassio. She says that Cassio will testify otherwise, but Othello replies, "No, his mouth is stopp'd; / Honest Iago hath ta'en order for't" 5.2.71-72).

After he has killed Desdemona, Othello tries to justify himself to Emilia. He says that if she doesn't believe that Desdemona was a whore Emilia should ask her husband. Emilia expresses astonished disbelief, and Othello says, "Ay, 'twas he that told me first: / An honest man he is, and hates the slime / That sticks on filthy deeds" (5.2.147-149). Twice more Emilia expresses the strongest possible doubt that it was Iago who said that Desdemona was false, and Othello becomes impatient with her. He says, "He, woman; / I say thy husband: dost understand the word? / My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago" (5.2.152-154). Emilia, however, doesn't seem to have Othello's absolute faith in Iago's honesty. She replies, "If he say so, may his pernicious soul / Rot half a grain a day! he lies to the heart" (5.2.155-156).