5. Jago was an honest man after all

"A man he is of honesty and trust," Othello says of Jago (I.iii.284).  And shortly afterwards he addresses him: "Honest Iago,/My Desdemona must I leave to thee." (I.iii.294).  Othello again: "Iago is most honest" (III.i.6), and again: "Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving,/Speak, who began this?" (II.iii.168-9) Not long after Othello says: "I know, Iago,/Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter." (II.iii.238-9). And when, still in the same scene, Cassio exclaims: "Reputation, reputation, I ha' lost my reputation! I ha' lost the immortal part, sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial; my reputation, Iago, my reputation!, (II.iii.254-6)  Iago answers: "As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound, there is more offence in that than in reputation; reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit, and lost without deserving." (II.iii.258-62). Cassio takes his leave from Iago: "Good night, honest Iago. (II.iii.26).

            Within one single scene, II.iii, Iago is four times called "honest", twice by Othello, once by Cassio, and once by himself. If one is so obviously honest, it is astonishing it need be repeated so often.  Moreover, Iago is not honest when he assures Cassio that the loss of reputation means so little. In a later reply to Othello he empathically takes a radically opposite stand: "Good name in man and woman 's dear, my lord;/Is the immediate jewel of our 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." (III.iii.159-65).

            At this juncture it is useful to remember how many meanings the words "honesty" and "honest" could denote in the 16th and 17th centuries and to refer another time to the many meanings William Cotgrave lists for the French adjective honneste in his French-English dictionary (1611): honest, good, virtuous; just, upright, sincere; gentle, civil, , courteous, worthy, noble, honorable, of good reputation, comelic, seemelic, handsome, wellbefitting. "Honest" could mean "of good reputation", which is the same as "good name". So, in front of Cassio, Iago maintains that the loss of reputation is of no great weight, in front of Othello, on the contrary, he calls it "the immediate jewel of our souls."

            In both cases it is honesty that is at stake,  yet, not "honesty" in the narrow modern sense of "sincerity", "truthfulness"  but in the sense of "honest behaviour", a qualification which was entirely dependent on the opinion of others, not on the values a particular individual himself might think worth living up to. Honesty was a social norm. It is also useful to remeber the words of the French moralist Piere Nicole on who decided  whether someone was honest or dishonest in this broad behavioral sense: "In Nicole's view, civilité, is one of those 'simple laws of decorum, whose authority originates in a consensus among people who have agreed to condemn those who do not obey them... This is why we owe to those around us the civilities laid down by the honnêtes gens, even though they may not be governed by clearly stated laws.[1] Iago, it seems, is accounted an honest man, a man of worldly wisdom whose judgment is sought for by both Cassio and Othello. When he introduces his advice to Cassio with the phrase "As I am an  honest man," he is not speaking of honesty in the sense of sincerity but as a man of honest carriage who controls his passions and only speaks after careful consideration. In his The Courtier's Manual Oracle, or, the Art of Prudence, also translated under the title The Art of Worldly Wisdom (first Spanish edition in 1653), the Spanish moralist Balthasar Gracián (1601-1658) "A Man never taken in passion: Is a mark of the sublimest reach of wit, seeing thereby a man puts himself above all vulgar impressions. It is the greatest of Dominions to rule one's self and passions.[2] It is because Iago never seems to speak inconsiderately that Othello trusts him: "And for I know thou art full of love and honesty/ And weighest thy words before thou give'em breath" (III.iii.122-3).  It was one of the standards of honesty set by Sir Thomas Elyot In The Book, named the Governor: "nor in speech outrageous or arrogant, but in honourable and sober demeanour, deliberate and grave pronunciation, words clean and facile, void of rudeness and dishonesty".

            In none of the instances quoted above is "honesty" or "honest" to be understood as "sincerity". It is the mode of behaving of a man-of-the-world. As such, Iago is sort of guide to the soldier and the Moorish outsider.  Cunningly, he advises Othello not to be carried away by his passions in his dealing with Desdemona, suspected of adultery: "I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion,/ I do repent that I put it to you." (III.iii.397-8).

            "Honest Iago" is, indeed, honest, of proper societal behaviour, that is.  And at the same time profoundly dishonest, insincere.

From 1565 to 1575 Torquato Tasso was living at the court of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. In that period he wrote the two works on which his fame mainly rests: Aminta (1573) and Jerusalem Delivered (1575).  At the first signs of mental disorder, he left the court, but returned to Ferrara in 1579. In that year Duke Alfonso married  Margherita Gonzaga. Tasso seemed to have insulted the duchess and other people  at court. He was thereupon confined to the hospital of Sant' Anna, which was more of an asylum or even a prison than a hospital, where he remained till 1585. There is little reason not to believe that Tasso was suffering from mental disease. Michel de Montaigne visited Tasso in 1580 during his journey to Italy. We have Montaigne's testimony of Tasso's piteous state in the second volume of his Essays. However, there can be no doubt that Tasso enjoyed sustained periods of mental equilibrium. During his confinement he wrote a series of Dialoghi on courtly subjects: on "nobility," on "honest pleasure," and also the dialogue Il Mapiglio: A Dialogue on the Court. The dialogue is carried on between a young Italian gentleman, Giovanlorenzo Malpiglio (G.M.), and a stranger from Naples (N.S.), from which an extract is quoted here:

 "N.S. When a courtier has great intelligence, which sometimes happens, he ought to cover it up modestly, not show off his pride...

G.M. I think that it will be very difficult for me to seem to be what I am and not to hide what I am...

N.S. All the same, there is a melancholy created in some men by obvious excellence in others... and, whether out of politeness or respect, the courtier ought to avoid causing such melancholy when he is conversing with others and even when he is with the prince. The best way to accomplish this, moreover, is by concealment or, as some say, by keeping quiet... Prudence, then, is the virtue that overcomes all difficulties at court... prudence or, perhaps, knowledge of nature...

G.M. I see not only the outline of the courtier bus his complete picture, his portrait in color. And if that other portrait, by Castiglione, was made for his time, the portrait you have made ought to be prized in these times when dissimulation is one of the most important virtues.

N.S. But does an honest man dissimulate?"

            Iago says "I am not what I am." He hides his feeling... and he enjoys the reputation of an honest man because he is acting rationally in a courtly society to which Othello as a Moor and a soldier is a stranger. A passage in Norbert Elias' The Court Society reads like a periphrasis of Iago's words in Act I, Scene iii:

 "...affective outbursts are difficult to control and calculate. They reveal the true feelings of persons to a degree that, because not calculated, can be damaging; they hand over trump cards to rivals for favour and prestige. Above all, they are a sign of weakness; and that is the position the court person fears most of all. In this way the competition of court life enforces a curbing of the affects in favour of calculating and finely shaded behaviour in dealing with people.[3]

What Iago says in Act I, Scene 1, is not different:


                For when my outward action doth demonstrate
                The native act and figure of my heart
                In complement extern, 'tis not long after
                But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
                For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Were it not for his dishonest inner disposition, the chasm between "the native act and figure of the heart" and its "complement extern", the lines Iago speaks might identify him as the ideal courtier. In maxime XCVIII of his Manual Oracle Balthasar Graciàn advises the courtier:

"To dissemble"

Passions are the breaches of the mind. The most useful art is the art to dissemble. He that shews his game runs the risk of losing it. Let circumspection combat against curiosity. Cover thine heart with a hedge of diffidence and reserve from those who nibble too nicely at words. Let them never know thy disposition, lest they prevent thee either by contradiction or flattery."

For, so Gracián's next maxim (XCIX):

"Reality and appearance"

Things are not taken for what they are but for what they appear to be. There is scarcely anyone that sees into the inside, most part of men content themselves with shew. It is not enough to have a good intention if the action look ill."

Iago also proves a masterly practictioner of another rule formulated by Gracián, the one in his maxim XXVI:

"The art of moving people's wills involves more skill than determination. You must know how to get inside the other person. Each will has its own special object of delight; they vary according to taste. Everyone idolizes something ... The trick is to identify the idols that can set people in motion. It is like having the key to someone else's desires. Go for the "prime mover," which isn't always something lofty and important. Usually it is something low, for the unruly outnumber the well ruled. First size up someone's character and then touch on his weak point."

In V.2 Iago says of Othello:

            I told him what I thought, and told no more
            Than what he found himself was apt and true.

Honor and honesty

            After having strangled Desdemona, Desdemona's uncle Lodovico ask Othello: "What should be said to thee?" Othello answers:

                                                    Why, anything;
                An honourable murtherer, if you will,
                 For nought did I in hate, but all in honour. (lines 294-6)

After Montano has robbed him of his sword: "take you this weapon,/Which I have here recover'd from the Moor," (lines 240-1) Othello says:

                                I am not valiant neither,
                But every puny whipster gets my sword;
                But why should honour outlive honesty?
                Let it go all.

The Arden editor M.R. Ridley explains this question : "Why should any concern for reputation remain active when honour in the true sense of an honourable life has been lost?" [4]

This explanation cannot satisfy. Othello, wrongly thinking Desdemona was dishonest, has killed her to restore his own honor. Still after he has become aware that his suspicions were false, he maintains that he did it all out of concern for his honor. At this moment, his murder has already deprived him of his "honesty", his good reputation in terms of respectable behaviour. In IV.2 Emilia twice witnesses to Desdemona's honesty: " I durst, my lord, to wager, she is honest," and "For if she be not honest, chaste and true,/There's no man happy, the purest of her sex/Is foul of slander." In the same scene Othello urges Desdemona: "Swear thou art honest," and some lines later Desdemona says: "I hope my noble lord esteems me honest." The fact that Montano, whom he had higly praised in II.3 for his civility and wisdom but not for his valiancy and  whom in these lines he compares to a "puny whipster", a small insignificant person snapping a whip,  has snapped his sword, make the great general Othello feel as if after his honesty he has lost his military reputation too. "But why," he asks, "should I live on in honor when honest Desdemona is dead?" The phrase heralds the suicide he is going to commit.

                The word "honesty" (like the French "honnêteté" and the Italian "onesta") were derived from the Latin "honestas". The Latin word could denote "honor", it could also denote "propriety" or "decency".  It is in the latter sense Cicero used it in De Officiis, a book that exerted a great influence, among others on Castiglione's Book of the Courtier and Sir Thomas Elyot's Book named the Governor.  Elyot almost certainly borrowed the term from Cicero. Cicero's book has been translated into English under the title Of Duty; others have translated the title as "Of dutiful behavior"; another suitable title would be "Of the right behavior". "Honesty", as introduced by Elyot, is a behavioral category. Cicero's book also contains the phrase "cedant arma togae" (book I.77), "arms should yield to the toga", the dress Roman citizens wore in peacetime. Hence, the toga was associated with civil, not military matters. It was precisely Elyot's aim to lay down the educational prescriptions which should prepare the aristocracy for civil government; his notion of "honesty" was introduced in differentiation from "honor",  mainly associated with military behavior.  Against this background it can be no surprise that in the last quarter of the 16th century "honesty" and "civility" were being used interchangeably.

            Sir Thomas Elyot (1531) and Roger Ascham (1570) use "honesty" only in this sense, never in the sense of "sincerity", with which meaning it was also used. Their notion of "honesty" uniquely relates to outward behaviour. This outward honesty might proceed from a sincere inward conviction, but, in fact, this inward conviction did not matter. What mattered was outer, not inner compliance. Or to use Iago's words: it was not necessary that the outward behavior was the "complement extern" to the native act and figure of the heart". Even if a person inwardly rejected the rules of honesty, he could dissemble and play a social role correctly. He would then be true to the rules but untrue to himself. The ethics of a courtly aristocratic society were ethics of behaviour, not ethics of inner conviction or mentality. In such a society one could be at the same time inwardly dishonest and outwardly honest. As Iago is.

Honesty: inward and outward - Othello and Jago

             "I am not what I am. "Iago is not what he is because his social image shaped after the rules of outward honesty is totally different from his inner disposition. He is a dissembler. His personality is not of one piece, it is divided between his persona, the personality displayed externally, and the person he is internally. Hence, he is no individual in the etymological sense of the Latin word "individuum", something indivisible.

            Is Desdemona what she is? She herself denies it:

"I am not merry, but I do beguile
The thing I am, by seeming otherwise." (II.i.122-3)

"Beguile" here means "deceive" or "disguise", as in The Rape of Lucrece: "To me came Tarquin armed to beguild/ With outward honesty, but yet defiled/ With inward vice." (1544-46).

            To Iago, Othello "is what he is":

                The Moor is of a free and open nature,
                That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, (I.iii.397-8)

At the same time Iago knows this strength also to be Othello's vulnerability.

The same has been said of Shakespeare. By Ben Jonson. "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature." [5]  Therefore, Shakespeare could write in Sonnet 121: "I am that I am."

                But in the end Othello will have changed.  "Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate/Call all in all sufficient?This the noble nature,/Whom passion could not shake?", the Venetian envoy Lodovico asks. Iago answers: "He is much chang'd." "Are his wits safe? is he not light of brain?", Lodovico wants to know. Iago answers:

                He's is that he is; I may not breathe my censure,
                What he might be; if, as he might, he is not,
                I would to heaven he were! (IV.i.260-8)

Finally, when in the last act Lodovico asks: "Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?, Othello answers: "That's he that was Othello; here I am." (V.ii.285).

                It is the work of Iago.

Iago's motive

                What makes Iago so bent on Othello's destruction? Three times in the play, an allusion is made that Iago's wife Emilia would have had a love affair with Othello. Emilia denies it:

                O, fie upon them! Some such squire he was
                That turn'd your wit the seamy side without,
                And made you to suspect me with the Moor. (IV.ii.147-9).

Iago talks himself into the belief this was so:

                For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
                Hath leap'd into my seat; the thought whereof
                Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards,
                And nothing can or shall content my soul
                Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife. (II.i.290-4)

Yet, he does not believe it really:

                                                                I hate the Moor,
                And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
                He's done my office. I know not if't be true,
                But I for mere suspicion in that kind
                Will do as if for surety. (I.iii.384-8).

If Iago is compelled to kindle his hatred for Othello by some concrete pretext he himself does not really believe, we may assume that some unconscious motive is moving him.  And it can hardly be the fact that Cassio has been preferred as lieutenant: it is too palpable a reason. Surely, it does not please Iago, but he lays relatively little store by that.  "Iago," A.D. Nuttall writes, "has successfully induced a violent emotion in himself, but it is wholly factitious, and he knows what he has done. This means that the origins of his action remain completely obscure. Coleridge's famous phrase, 'the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity,' is brilliantly exact." [6]

                Are the origins of his action "completely obscure"? Is Coleridge's phrase "brilliantly exact"? Shakespeare never leaves us completely in the dark - if we read him attentively enough, even pedantically attentively. We should recall Tasso's phrase: "there is a melancholy created in some men by obvious excellence in others." Othello's excellence is his "free and open nature". He is that the is. Iago is not what he is. He lives his "outward honesty", the seat of his "inward personality" is barren, empty, sacrificed to his social role. Othello "gnaws his inwards," has Shakespeare Iago say. In Iago's mind, Othello occupies the void Iago has himself created by letting his social person gnaw away his inward. Iago is inwardly possessed, demonized by Othello. Hence, his élan vital is that Othello be evacuated from his inward.

                He's is that he is; I may not breathe my censure,
                What he might be; if, as he might, he is not,
                I would to heaven he were!

The third scene of the third act is the key scene of the play. In it Iago is successful in sowing fatal suspicion into Othello's mind about Cassio's and Desdemona's honesty. The words "honest" and "honesty" occur about fifty times in the play, 22 times in Act III and 19 times alone in Scene 3.  Indeed, the wily insinuations through which Iago progressively undoes Othello's composure center around the ambivalence of the term "honesty". Honesty need not but can be merely outward. As Iago remarks in I.3, to the open and free nature of Othello: he that seems honest is actually honest.

            The short Scene 1 of Act III (56 lines) between Cassio and the clown (29 lines), Cassio and Jago (11 lines) and Cassio and Iago's wife Emilia (16 lines) may be considered as an overture to Scene 3, the axis of the play; Scene 2 (6 lines) is a mere transition scene, an extended stage direction so to speak, to ensure the coherence of the narrative plot. Scene 1, however, is dramaturgically important. Shakespeare prepares the ground for Scene III. There is some irony in the exchange between Cassio and the clown. Cassio asks the clown: "Dost thou hear, my honest friend?" The clown replies: "No, I hear not your honest friend, I hear you." The clown possibly means that he hears Cassio, not his honest friend Iago. Then enters Iago for a brief spell; when he leaves, Cassio remarks: "I never knew/ A Florentine more kind and honest." In his birth city Florence, Cassio never knew anybody who would have been more kind and honest than the Venetian Jago. In the subsequent exchange between Othello and Iago the words "honest" and "honesty" are repeated at drumbeat rhythm. They occur no less than six times from line 104 to line 165, a rhythm accelerated from line 382 to 390 where they occur 5 times.  

            After an incident engineered by Iago in Act II, Scene 3, Cassio has fallen into disfavour with Othello. Upon Iago's advice Cassio seeks the intermediation of Desdemona to be restored as Othello's Lieutenant: "For 'tis most easy/The inclining Desdemona to subdue,/In any honest suit... and then for her to win the Moor."(II.3)  Scene 3 starts with Cassio requesting Desdemona's intercession. On Othello's coming, Cassio stealthily leaves the room.

                OTHELLO.   Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
                IAGO.     Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
                                That he would sneak away so guilty-like,
                                Seeing you coming.
                OTHELLO.    I do believe 'twas he.

The first seed of suspicion is planted into Othello's mind.

                OTHELLO.    Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern'st thou aught in that?
                                Is he not honest?
                IAGO.     Honest, my lord?
                OTHELLO.    Honest? Ay, honest.
                IAGO.     My lord, for aught I know.
                OTHELLO.    What dost thou think?
                IAGO.     Think, my lord?
                OTHELLO.    Think, my lord? By heaven, he echoes me,
                                As if there were some monster in his thought.
"Honest" in this passage can mean several things at the same time: sincere, upright, morally irreproachable, respectable. But in the next use the meaning is restricted to "self-control,, "not subject to passion," "sober judgment." Because Iago outwardly seems all that, Othello trusts him:
                And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath,
                Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more;
                For such things in a false disloyal knave
                Are tricks of custom; but in a man that's just
                They're close dilations, working from the heart,
                That passion cannot rule.

                By returning to the subject, Iago creates the impression he has not settled his mind about Cassio's honesty, thereby entertaining and fuelling Othello's suspicions. He even expresses, hypocritically, his regret about the possible non-accordance of outward and inward honesty, to which he has emphatically pledged himself as a vital necessity for survival in a competitive social environment in the first scene of the first act:

                IAGO.     For Michael Cassio,
                                I dare be sworn I think that he is honest.
                OTHELLO.    I think so too.
                IAGO.     Men should be what they seem;
                                Or those that be not, would they might seem none!
                OTHELLO.    Certain, men should be what they seem.
                IAGO.     Why then I think Cassio's an honest man.
                OTHELLO.    Nay, yet there's more in this.
                                I prithee, speak to me as to thy thinkings,
                                As thou dost ruminate, and give thy worst of thoughts
                                The worst of words.

In his play Cynthia's Revels (1600), Ben Jonson describes Crites as an incarnation of reasonableness and rationality. "A creature of a most perfect and divine temper: One, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met, ... he is neither too phantastically melancholic, too slowly phlegmatic, too lightly sanguine, or too rashly choleric, but in all, so composed and ordered, as it is clear Nature went about some full work, she did more than make a man when she made him. His discourse is like his behaviour, uncommon, but not unpleasing; he is prodigal of neither. He strives rather to be that which men call judicious, than to be thought so; and is so truly learned, that he affects not to show it. He will think, and speak his thought both freely; but as distant from depraving another man's merit, as proclaiming his own. For his valour, 'tis such, that he dares as little to offer an injury as receive one. In sum, he hath a most ingenuous and sweet spirit, a sharp and seasoned wit, a straight Judgment, and a strong mind." It is the role Iago plays in this scene.  "This fellow's of exceeding honesty, /And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,/ Of human dealings," Othello concludes (III.3.262). Before confronting Othello with the handkerchief spotted with strawberries in Cassio's possession, he is cautious and feigns to withhold his judgment on Cassio, because he might err and would not like to wrong him. When Othello becomes threatening and requires an ocular proof, he wallows in self-pity, complaining that his honesty but earns him inconveniences and scorn:

                IAGO.     O grace! O heaven defend me!
                                Are you a man? have you a soul or sense?
                                God be wi' you; take mine office. O wretched fool,
                                That livest to make thine honesty a vice!
                                O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world,
                                To be direct and honest is not safe.
                                I thank you for this profit, and from hence
                                I'll love no friend sith love breeds such offense.
                OTHELLO.    Nay, stay; thou shouldst be honest.
                IAGO.     I should be wise; for honesty's a fool,
                                And loses that it works for.
                OTHELLO.    By the world,
                                I think my wife be honest, and think she is not;
                                I think that thou art just, and think thou art not.

Othello is subjected to a brainwash by Iago.

                About Baldesar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier Peter Burke very aptly observes: "One way of summarizing its author's achievements in a sentence would be to say that he helped adapt humanism to the world of the court, and the court to the world of humanism." [7] The Book of the Courtier was published in 1528. But in the previous paper we have seen that in the 1580s Torquato Tasso had arrived at the conclusion that Castiglione's mainly aesthetic ideal had been displaced by one that required prudence and dissimulation. In 1653 the Spaniard Balthasar Gracián recommended prudence and the art of "moving people's wills". The application of Gracián's rule does not necessarily lead to the emergence of a man like Iago. But the possibility that a Iago emerged from the observance of those rules did exist. Already Castiglione's "ideal courtier" had met with moderate criticisms, for the sprezzatura, the nonchalance, the "studied spontaneity", which he highlights as the hallmark of the ideal courtier, was, in the final analysis, the product of dissimulation. Later, as Tasso and Gracián inform us, it is dissimulation itself that becomes the chief trump of the courtier. And so courtly humanism could inherently generate a Iago as its worst-case scenario. Shakespeare obviously deplored it. Hamlet's endearing friend is his former fellow student at the University of Wittenberg, Horatio, the humanist scholar, not his former fellow students at the same university, the opportunistic courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.




[1] Quoted from Stanton, Domna C. The Aristocrat as Art. A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York, 1980, p. 131.

[2] Gracián,  Balthasar,  The Courtier's Manual Oracle, or, the Art of Prudence,  London, 1685,  Maxime VIII.

[3] Elias, Norbert, Die hoefische Gesellschaft, Frankfurt/Main, 1992, p. 169. English translation by Robert Van Krieken (1998) p. 85.

[4] Othello, Arden Series, edited by M.R. Ridley, London and New York, 1994 (first published in 1958)

[5] Ben Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter.

[6] Nuttal, A.D., Shakespeare The Thinker, New Haven and London, p. 282.

[7] Burke, Peter, The Fortunes of the Courtier, Cambridge, 1995, p. 34.