Is Iago "honest" in Shakespeare's Othello? Explain why or why not.
The question speaks to Iago's morality. Is his 'honesty' a measure of his moral turpitude or his moral supremacy? Yes, he is honest to the audience throughout the play and speaks of his devious nature and makes a declaration of intent, without apologising for what he does and what he intends doing. His sole desire is to destroy those by whom he feels wronged or threatened, by whatever means possible. His devious machinations are purposeful and a means to an end: He follows Othello to 'serve my turn upon him.' Iago, for all his honesty, does not care about how his actions would affect innocent victims, they become mere residual damage in his journey of destruction.
In reality, the fact that Iago is honest in his declarations to Roderigo further emphasises his evil, for he does this only to gain Roderigo's support and the gullible fool realises too late that he had also been manipulated and had been a mere tool in Iago's devious plan.
Added to this, we the audience, are impressed by the fact that Iago is honest to himself and does not make excuses for who he is. But this does not make him a better person, for the audience has no influence on his actions and therefore his honesty, in this regard, has no merit whatsoever. Shakespeare cleverly uses Iago's honesty with the audience as a device to add to the dramatic irony and therefore the tension. The more Iago confesses to us, the greater the impact. We wait in expectation for his next act of evil and its resultant effect on the unfortunate characters toward whom his perfidy is directed.
Furthermore, Iago at times, functions as a narrator and his glee in confessing his evil makes him a more pernicious individual, for he takes pride in the fact that he can manipulate others so easily and make them believe his every word. He comes across as arrogant and psychotic, not admirable.
With the exception of Roderigo, Iago does not confide in anyone else about his intentions, for he fears that they could turn against him. This makes him a coward. In effect, he does not admit his cowardice for he deems it a weakness, whereas his exploitation and manipulation is seen as a strength, something to brag about to those from whom he can expect no intervention. His 'honesty' is therefore selective. When he does discover a threat to his machinations, when Roderigo for example rebels against him, he kills him and blames others for his murder.
The fact that others trust him and believe in his honesty, is a source of great pride and satisfaction to Iago and this is where the measure of his character is grandly displayed. His malice becomes more evident for he uses this belief in him and his goodness to drag them further into his web of lies and devastation. He carries this through right to the end and never admits to his wrongdoing. When he is finally caught out, he like the coward he is, declares:
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.
So, no, Iago is not honest. The superficial and meaningless confessions he makes when addressing the audience and Roderigo, is not honesty at all. It merely displays the depth of his evil, for he realises that such 'honesty' does not present him with any threat. He can freely execute his malicious and vindictive plot.
Coming from the perspective of the audience, I would argue that Iago is, in point of fact, honest. From our introduction to him at the beginning of the play, he is open about his motives and how he serves Othello in order to do his turn upon him, or to get what he wants. He explains this to Roderigo when Roderigo questions his motives and he often explains this to the audience in his asides.
He even goes so far as to ask the audience whether or not he should be expected to have any love for the moor (Othello) given that he was passed over for promotion and also suspects that Othello slept with Emilia. Of course Emilia's assurance that this is not the case does nothing to lessen his suspicion.
But Iago is consistent in his actions being driven by a desire for revenge and nothing turns him from it. When things do not go according to plan, he adjusts and makes do. He is adept at using everyone around him to accomplish his design and at the end of the play refuses to say anything more; his character remains true to his motivation and his own appraisal of himself as "honest."
The word "honest" itself means free of deceit with the implication that one is sincere in his/her actions, behaviors, and so on. Based on this perspective, we can argue that Iago is not honest, for his sole purpose in his interactions with Othello are to manipulate Othello into believing a lie--that Desdemona is having an affair with Michael Cassio.
However, throughout the course of the play, Iago is indeed honest with the audience. The play opens with Iago explaining to the audience his intentions--to make a fool of Othello while pretending to be his friend. As the play unfolds, Iago never once lies to us as he continues to plot his next move against Othello. In fact, Iago even warns Othello to "beware, my lord, of jealousy!" Therefore, is it fair to say that Iago is not honest?
Overall, one could argue that Iago is not honest in his actions, but honest in his words. A master manipulator, Iago is adept at leading others to believe things that he never states as fact, but rather implies as fact.