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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Honesty Is the Best Policy (Hear That, Iago?)

You've probably noticed how the word "honest" shows up all over the place in Othello. By poet and literary critic William Empson's count, there are fifty-two uses of "honest" and "honesty" throughout the play. If you're reading this, that's way more than one "honest" per page. That's a whole lot of honesty.

Like the word "nothing" in King Lear, "honest" has a wide range of meanings in Othello. At times, it refers to chastity, the question of whether a woman is "honest" or whether she is promiscuous. At other times, the word refers to personal honesty: whether or not a person is telling the truth. It can also refer to whether or not a person is a good and loving friend—to be fair, if a person isn't honest, they're probably not that great of a friend.

These meanings come together in some ironic ways throughout the play. The clearest example of this is how Iago uses personal dishonesty (lies and deceit) to convince Othello that his wife is sexually dishonest (cheating on her husband), all while pretending to be looking out for the best interests of his so-called friend.

Check out how Iago plays the martyr when Othello warns him that he, Iago, better not be lying about Desdemona:

—O wretched fool,
That liv'st 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.
Nay, stay. Thou shouldst be honest.
I should be wise; for honesty's a fool
And loses that it works for.
By the world,
I think my wife be honest and think she is not;

You can see the different meanings of "honest" throughout this passage:  Othello urges his buddy that he "shouldst be honest" (i.e. be a pal) and also laments that he thought his wife "be honest" (faithful). Iago, of course, is doing what he does best and is lying through his teeth.

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