Iago personifies this theme of honesty and manipulation that is expressed in Othello, The play follows Iago in his ambition to destroy Othello, by means of manipulation, and his success in doing so. Iago is consistently dishonest with Othello, lying both about Desdemona’s apparent adultery and his motivation for saying so. In contrast, Iago has moments of absolute honesty in his soliloquies. Yale critic Harold Bloom would suggest that he does not speak to complete truth as he contradicts himself and searches for justification – “And what’s he then that says I play the villain, / When this advice is free…and honest”.
Nevertheless, through Iago’s soliloquies, the audience or reader gains considerable insight in to what is really happening in the play. Here, Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony perpetuates the centrality of the theme of honesty and manipulation as the audience/readers are the only ones who know the truth. In contrast to the Christian God, the honest, just, rock solid “I am”, Iago confesses his duplicitous nature “I am not what I am” at the start of the play. Use of such biblical allusion and imagery contrasts the manipulation and betrayal that Iago personifies.
This idea of manipulation is developed in his second speech, “in following him, I follow but myself” and “I follow him to serve my own turn upon him”. Iago’s plans of manipulation for not only Othello, but also Roderigo, are foreshadowed by the cliche “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at”. This imagery of birds pecking at Iago’s heart intensifies his sinister qualities. Fittingly, in Act One Scene Two, Iago is heard to swear by the Roman two-faced god Janus. Othello begins the play as an honourable and respected general – for Bloom “there is authenticity to his soul”.
Despite common racial prejudice, senators and the like greet him as “valiant Othello” and “the noble Moor” as signs of respect. Othello is able to maintain a calm attitude in his powerful position by his mutual trust in his fellow Venetians, especially the likes of his right-hand men, including Iago. Trust and honesty come hand-in-hand, and so it is no surprise that Othello believes Iago to be an honest man, “And, for I know thou art full of love and honesty”. Iago (being anything but honest) plays on Othello’s ignorance, manipulating him to believe that his wife, Desdemona, is dishonest.
Again, we can see how the use of manipulation is cause and effect of action in the play. These two principle characters are by no means the only souls in Othello who struggle in the conflict between honesty and dishonesty, yet any motivation for dishonesty can appear to differ. Whist generally appearing honest, Desdemona has deceived her father over her marriage to Othello. However, her motivation in doing so was to prevent, not cause, pain, “Such news would pain him severely, and I do not wish to bring such news unto him until I feel it would be right to do so. Skilfully, Iago manipulates Desdemona’s acknowledged deception, reminding Othello that “she did deceive her father, marrying you”, and planting the seed of doubt about her fidelity in Othello’s mind. Once convinced of her supposed affairs, Othello turns on Desdemona – “heaven knows thou art false as hell” – conjuring diabolical imagery that underscores her believed dishonesty, reversing the imagery that has so far been associated with Othello and Desdemona – him as the “blacker devil” and her as the “fair angel”. In contrast to Iago, whose dishonesty is motivated by malice, Desdemona’s ishonesty is more ‘innocent’. When Othello asks Desdemona for the for the whereabouts of the handkerchief he had given her as a gift long ago, Desdemona lies and says she knows where it is but doesn’t have it readily available, in order to cover up the fact that she has lost it – “I say, it is not lost”. The handkerchief symbolises the glue that holds their relationship together. Once this ‘glue’ has been removed there is no longer anything to keep the two from splitting and hence a sense of dishonesty and mistrust becomes apparent between them.
Othello is soon to find that Desdemona has indeed lost the handkerchief, meaning he succumbs further to Iago’s poison of manipulation. Thus causation occurs, courtesy of this central theme of honesty and manipulation. In truth, Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s trusted maidservant, has stolen the handkerchief. Emilia has been manipulated into taking the handkerchief by her husband, who ostensibly wanted to copy the handkerchief’s motif. Iago uses Emilia for his scheme and abuses her trusted relationship with Desdemona. Iago takes the handkerchief and plants it in Cassio’s bed. I know not that, but such a handkerchief I am sure it was your wife’s – Did I today see Cassio wipe his beard with”. Convinced that his wife has been unfaithful to him, Othello’s ignorance of the manipulative “demi-devil” in Iago and the good in his wife drives him to near madness. Shakespeare depicts this through the deterioration in Othello’s language – from poetic verse to prose to muddled and nonsensical singular words, “pish, lips, handkerchief”. Anguished, Othello’s mind is finally devastated as he confides in Iago’s conspiracy of doubt and he smothers Desdemona.
Moments later he learns his drastic act of jealous aggression is actually the result of his trusted subordinate’s dishonest and manipulative plan. Distraught at the loss of her beloved mistress, Emilia reveals the truth to Othello about her husband’s deceitful conspiracy. Her truthful confession means the end of her own life as she is immediately slain by Iago. Yet again, Shakespeare indicates the centrality of honesty and manipulation in the play as it is the direct cause of actions undertaken by his characters. In our humanness, we are both intentionally honest and dishonest (perhaps manipulative) to some measure on the continuum.
Othello, while dark of skin, is “far more fair than black” in contrast to Iago’s dark nature. Acknowledging his mistake of murdering his wife, Othello plays judge and jury on himself, passing a death sentence and executing suicide; this contrast to Iago’s silence. Iago neither justifies his actions nor admits his guilt, perhaps suggesting he does not feel any. This contrast highlights Iago as the “motiveless malignancy” and helps Shakespeare to conclude the play separating good (honesty and truth) and evil (dishonesty and manipulation).
By acknowledging what he has done, Othello is able to maintain “authenticity to his soul” and regain his honour in the eyes of the audience. In contrast, Iago by his duplicity and then silence is dammed in literature for his dishonesty and manipulation. Honesty is a key theme in Othello which is directly related to the centrality of manipulation in the play. Shakespeare clarifies its centrality by the use of dramatic irony, soliloquy and symbolism in the play. Characters’ dishonesty and manipulation is clearly seen to be the cause of what is The Tragedy of Othello.