Honest and Honesty in Othello and William Empson’s elaboration of the word ‘Honest’ in Othello

Honest and Honesty in Othello: William Empson points attention to the fact that the two words, ‘Honest’ and ‘Honesty’ are reiterated in Othello in a way which is quite unique. There are divergent uses of this key word in the play and every lower character uses it. Even Bianca, the unchaste says that she is more honest than Emilia who has stolen the handkerchief. Every one calls Iago honest once or twice, but with Othello this epithet becomes an obsession. Empson points out that the word has an interesting history.

At the time when Othello was written, the word was still undergoing a complicated process of change and what emerged from it was a jovial cult of independence. At some stage of the development, the word came to have it a covet assertion that the man who accepts the natural desires , who doesn’t live by principle, will be fit for such warm uses of ‘honest’ as imply ‘generous’ and ‘faithful’ to friends and to believe this is to disbelieve the Fall of Man. Thus, the word, apart from being complicated, also came to raise large issues, and it is not, one thinks, a wild fancy to suppose that Shakespeare could feel that way it was going.

Difficulties: It is usual to agree with Bradley who feels that the use of the word ‘honest’ for Iago by everybody creates an impression that Shakespeare intends criticism of the word itself and that for Shakespeare in this play, an honest man may have a bluff forthright manner and an amusing talk which get a man called honest and which may go with extreme dishonesty. This is treated as normal and the satire is on our nature, not on the word.
Instances: There are abundant instances of the use of the word ‘Honest’ in Othello. Iago decides that he will deceive Othello into believing that he is honest when in reality he would only be telling lies:

The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seems to be so.

This is at the end of the first act. And indeed, the first use of the word in the play seems also to mean that Iago doesn’t think himself honest. Both Iago and Othello oppose honesty to mere truth-telling.

OthelloI know, Iago,
The honesty and love doth mince this
Matter,
Making it light to Cassio …..
IagoIt were not for your quiet nor your good,
Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom,
To let you know my thoughts.

Cassio’s Honesty: The point in Iago’s round-about speeches is to restrict the word ‘honest’ to the limited meaning such as not ‘Hypocritical’ – ‘frank about his own nature’ – accepted as the relevant sense; Iago will readily call Cassio honest on that basis, and Othello cannot be reassured. ‘Chaste’ (the sense normally used of women) Cassio is not, but he is not hypocrite about Bianca. Iago, indeed, despises him for letting her make a fool of him in the public, for that and for other reasons. Cassio is young and inexperience, so Iago can put a contemptuous tone into the word. This feeling is genuine.  Cassio has been frank to Iago in private about more things than may honestly be told.
Shades of Meaning: From some of the speeches of Iago, we gather the impression that his use of the word ‘honest’ for himself is not very different from what was to become its meaning during the Restoration. During a great deal of Iago’s conversation with Roderigo, we find Iago behaving as a wise uncle, ‘honest’ in the cheerful sense and the impression of him persists in us for some time. It is strong during the business of making Cassio drunk; there is no reason why he should praise the English for their powers of drinking except to make sure that the groundings are still on his side. One sense in which both Othello and Iago are honest is in their nonindulgent attitude towards romantic love. When Iago announces that he will set the down the pegs that make the music of Othello’s and Desdemona’s happiness, ‘as honest as I am’, he may mean either ‘because I am so honest’ or ‘though I am so honest’. In any case, Iago is ironical about the suggestions in the patronizing use, which he thinks are applied to him. The play gives us the impression that is unsafe to be ‘honest’. 
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