‘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 and even lower characters use it, to the extent that the unchaste Bianca claims that she is more honest than Emilia who has stolen the handkerchief.
Everyone calls Iago ‘honest’ once or twice but with Othello this epithet becomes an obsession. At one particular moment, just before Emilia exposes Iago, this word is loudly uttered again and again. 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 sort of jovial cult of independence. At some stage of the development (whether by the date of Othello or not) the word came to have in it a covert assertion that the man who accepts the natural desires, who does not live by principle, will be fit for such warm uses of ‘honest’ as imply ‘generous’ and ‘faithful to friends’, and to believe this 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 the way it was going.
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 amusing talk, which get a man called honest, and which may go with extreme dishonesty. Or indeed that this is treated as normal, and the satire is on our nature not on language ; but such readers would probably maintain that Iago is not honest and does not think himself so and only calls himself so as a lie or an irony. If the matter is left there, there is much to be said for what the despised Rymer derided, when the implications of the hearty use of ‘honest’ had become simpler and more clear-cut. He said that the play is ridiculous, because that sort of villain (silly-clever, full of secret schemes, miscalculating about people) does not get mistaken for that sort of honest man. This if true is of course a plain fault, whatever you think about ‘character-analysis’. It is no use taking short cuts in these things, and one feels that what Rymer said had a large truth when he said it, and also that Iago was a plausible enough figure in his own time. The only main road into this baffling subject is to find how the characters actually use the term and thereby think about themselves.
Among the instances of the use of the word ‘honest’, there is one where 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 seem 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 does not thins himself honest. Both Iago and Othello oppose honesty to mere truth-telling :
Othello : I know, Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio……
Iago : It were not for your quiet nor your good,
Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom,
To let you know my thoughts.
No doubt the noun tends to be more old-fashioned than the adjective, but anyway the old ‘honourable’ sense is as broad and vague as the new slang one ; it was easy enough to be puzzled by the word. Iago means partly ‘faithful to friends’, which would go with the Restoration use, but partly the version normally used of women ; what he has to say is improper. Certainly one cannot simply treat his version of ‘honest’ as the Restoration one––indeed, the part of the snarling critic involves a rather puritanical view, at any rate towards other people. It is the two notions of being ready to ‘blow the gaff’ on other people and be frank to yourself about your own desires that seem to be crucial about Iago ; they grow on their own, independently of the hearty feeling that would normally humanize them ; though he can be a good companion as well.
One need not look for a clear sense when he toys with the word about Cassio ; the question is how it came to be so mystifying. But a queer kind of honesty is maintained in Iago through all the puzzles he contrives ; hi emotions are always expressed directly, and it is only because they are clearly genuine (‘These stops of thine’, Othello tells him, ‘are close dilations, working from the heart’) that he can mislead Othello as to their cause. From his conversation with Othello, Iago has come to know that Cassio lied to him at least once when in font of Brabantio’s house, he pretended ignorance of the Othello-Desdemona affair, for Othello has admitted that Cassio was his intermediary with Desdemona. This would mean that Cassio snubbed him as though he believed him to be too coarse to be trusted in the matter, and, now Iago seems to take advantage of the opportunity before him. The point in Iago’s round-about speeches is to restrict the word ‘honest’ to the limited meaning such as ‘sot 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 a hypocrite’ about Bianca. Iago indeed, despises him for letting her make a fool of him in public ; for that and for other reasons (Cassio is young and without experience) Iago can put a contemptuous tone into the word ; the feeling is genuine, but not the sense it may imply. This gives room for a hint that Cassio has been ‘frank’ to Iago in private about more things than may honestly be told. The idea of ‘not being manly’ gives an extra twist. Iago does not think Cassio manly not that it is specially manly to be chaste ; this allows him to agree that Cassio may be honest in the female sense about Desdemona and still keep a tone which seems to deny it––if he is, after so much encouragement, he must be ‘effeminate’ (there is a strong idea of ‘manly’ in ‘honest’, and an irony that gives its opposite). Anyway, Iago can hide what reservations he makes but show that he makes reservations ; this suggests an embarrassed defence–– ‘Taking a broad view, with the world as it is, and Cassio my friend, I can decently call him honest.’ This forces home the Restoration idea––‘an honest dog of a fellow, straightforward about women’, and completes the suspicion.
Shades of Meaning
From some of the speeches of Iago, we gather the impression that his use of the word ‘honest’ for himself is pot 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 this impression of him persists in us for some time. It is still 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 groundlings are still on his side. One sense in which both Othello and Cassio are honest is in their unindulgent attitude towards romantic love. When Iago announces that he will set 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––‘low-class, and stupid, but good-natured’. But he feels himself really ‘honest’ as the kind of man who can see through nonsense ; Othello’s affair is a passing lust which has become a nuisance, and Iago can get it out of the way. It may well be objected that this is far too mild a picture of Iago’s plot, and indeed he himself is clearly impressed by its wickedness ; at the end of the first act he calls it a ‘monstrous birth’ and invokes Hell to assist it. But after this handsome theatrical effect the second act begins placidly, in a long scene which includes the ‘As honest as I am’ passage, and at the end of this scene we find that Iago still imagines he will only
Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me,
For making him egregiously an ass.
To be sure, the next lines say he will practise on Othello ‘even to madness’, but even this can be fitted into the picture of the clown who makes ‘fools’ of other people ; it certainly does not envisage the holocaust of the end of the play. Thinking in terms of character, it is clear that Iago has not yet decided how far he will go. The two suggestions in the word ‘honest’––that of stupidity in a patronising sense, and that of folly sometimes overlap. Moreover, Iago is in some sense also the Restoration honest fellow who is good company because he talks with blunt truthfulness. The play gives us the impression that it is unsafe to be ‘honest’ either in Iago’s sense or in Othello’s implicit sense.