Honor is an important concept throughout William Shakespeare’s Othello. The more the various characters are preoccupied with honor, the less certain they are of keeping or regaining it. The concept of honor has both professional and personal dimensions for the three male characters of Iago, Othello, and Cassio.
Iago’s elaborate campaign to destroy both Othello and Cassio at first seems to be based in professional concerns. He strongly believes that he deserved the promotion that Othello, in his capacity as a military leader, awarded to Cassio. Iago’s resentment of Cassio for taking “his” job also combines with his racist disrespect for Othello as a Moor. The audience learns, however, that Iago believes that both men slept with his wife, so his obsession with destroying them is also based in personal jealousy. For Iago, who operates on emotion rather than fact, certainty is equivalent to unsubstantiated opinion.
Othello greatly values honor both in his capacity as a leader and as a husband. Proving remarkably susceptible to Iago’s manipulation, Othello becomes convinced that Desdemona has sullied his honor through an affair with Cassio. Othello’s certainty is entirely based on the lies and false clues that Iago provides. Because Othello believes that Desdemona’s dishonor reflects badly on him, he ultimately decides he cannot reclaim his honor, but instead ends his own life as well as hers.
Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, worries about regaining his honor after he damages his reputation in one night of drunken revelry. His efforts to get back into his superior officer’s good graces entirely backfire, as Othello misinterprets the reasons for Desdemona’s help. Cassio regains his honor by proving Iago’s duplicity, but cannot save either Desdemona or Othello.