Essential Passage by Theme: Reputation

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1141

IAGO:I do beseech you—Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,As, I confess, it is my nature's plagueTo spy into abuses, and oft my jealousyShapes faults that are not—that your wisdom yet,From one that so imperfectly conceits,Would take no notice, nor build yourself a troubleOut of his scattering and unsure observance.It were not for your quiet nor your good,Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom,To let you know my thoughts.OTHELLO:What dost thou mean?IAGO:Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,Is the immediate jewel of their souls:Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;But he that filches from me my good nameRobs me of that which not enriches himAnd makes me poor indeed.Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 166-182


Iago’s plan to inspire jealousy in the heart of Othello is proceeding swiftly. As Cassio is pleading with Desdemona to speak to her husband on his behalf (on the suggestion of Iago), Othello enters. Cassio leaves quickly, and Iago makes the most of this, indirectly insinuating to Othello that such behavior is indeed suspicious. Despite Iago’s false insistence that Cassio is honest and trustworthy, Othello begins to suspect that Desdemona is unfaithful to him. Iago states, “Men should be what they seem,” a direct contrast to what he has previously confessed is his nature in Act 1. Othello presses him to speak his thoughts, but Iago demurs, saying his thoughts might not be the most fair to Cassio. But Othello insists, so Iago confesses a tendency to be suspicious and jealous. Remarking that Othello does not tend toward jealousy, Iago insists that he will not say what he thinks of Cassio, lest it inspire jealousy in Othello and injure Cassio’s good name. Iago then hypocritically speaks of the importance of having a good name. Reputation, he says, is more important than money. Riches can be taken away easily, yet their loss is recoverable. But if one’s reputation is taken away, one is the poorer, and the person who has taken one’s reputation is not enriched at all.


This passage targets the foundation at which Iago chips away—a person’s reputation. Iago does indeed believe that a reputation is a treasure to be guarded. However, he guards his own good name at the expense of those of others.

His reputation has been damaged by Othello in two separate instances. First, Othello passed him over for promotion in favor of someone whom Iago regards as less deserving and less capable. In the process, his stature in the eyes of society has either been lowered or not been raised to the level at which Iago esteems himself. In addition, there is another revelation that seems to be haunting Iago: the rumors of his wife’s infidelity with Othello. It is not so much the possibility that he has indeed been cuckolded that upsets Iago; instead, it is that his reputation is so low as to invite rumor. People seem willing to believe that Emilia would stray, which shows Iago incapable of keeping his wife by his side. If she had been unfaithful yet only Iago knew it, Iago would be less troubled. It is not the marriage bed that he regards as sullied, but his reputation.

In a clever move, Iago states that he is prone to be suspicious and jealous. This allows him to speak of his “suspicions” of Cassio’s inappropriate relationship with Desdemona, thus planting the seeds of jealousy in...

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Othello’s mind. By reverse psychology, Iago drives the thoughts deeper into Othello’s consciousness, giving them greater credence, while attempting to dismiss them as merely a product of his flawed nature. He manages to commit a greater sin by confessing to a lesser one.

Iago has artfully cast doubt in Othello’s mind. Minus the hard facts of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity, Iago points out the opportunities. He reminds Othello that, during the latter’s courtship of Desdemona, Cassio had many instances of being alone with her. Though Othello knew well that this was so, Iago manages to retroactively paint them in a different light. It is only by hindsight that Othello now sees the possibility of unfaithfulness. It is the possibility alone that is enough to open the door to thoughts that, without Iago’s assistance, would not have entered into Othello’s mind.

Iago has paved the way well for Othello’s move toward a tragic end. At this point, Othello does more than half the work. By insinuations, half-veiled remarks, and strong negations, Iago has sown the field of Othello’s mind to accept the seeds of jealousy that he is now spreading. Iago has once again taken on the role of Lucifer, reminiscent of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The temptation of jealousy is there. All that Iago has to do is walk along beside him.

Having successfully brought Othello to the point of doubt, Iago now builds up his own innocence. He is naturally suspicious, and many times has seen things that were in fact totally innocent. His remarks, he implies, are not to be given too much weight. Iago points out that to question someone’s good name would require more substantial justification than the petty jealousies that Iago is prone to. Rather than trust Iago, Iago implies, Othello should trust his own observations.

Desdemona herself, though innocent of Iago’s charge, has contributed to the predicament. As Iago points out, she was unfaithful to her father in marrying Othello without his consent or knowledge. This small act of untrustworthiness opens a small wound that allows the germ of doubt in. She is not totally innocent. She has shown that she can dissemble if need be, especially in the matter of love. By pointing this out, Iago effectively opens the gate for the “green-eyed monster,” jealousy, to walk in. Once trust is broken, Iago knows, it is rarely confined to one area.

However, Iago warns that Othello must be careful when it comes to jealousy. It is a “green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” More damage can be done by jealousy than by infidelity. And it is this that Iago is counting on. While his primary purpose is to destroy Othello, he is perfectly willing to destroy Desdemona in the process. While he may not envision physical destruction, he would be satisfied with the destruction of Othello’s reputation. As stated, he holds reputation to be of greater worth than gold, even though it may not profit the one who destroys that reputation. Iago says this with insincerity, since he expects to profit handsomely by the irreparable damage that he intends to inflict on the reputations of his enemies.

Essential Passage by Character: Iago

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191

IAGO:I follow him to serve my turn upon him:We cannot all be masters, nor all mastersCannot be truly follow'd. You shall markMany a duteous and kneecrooking knave,That doting on his own obsequious bondageWears out his time, much like his master's ass,For naught but provender; and, when he's old, cashier'd.Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are,Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty,Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,And throwing but shows of service on their lordsDo well thrive by them; and when they have lined theircoatsDo themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,And such a one do I profess myself.For, sir,It is as sure as you are Roderigo,Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.In following him, I follow but myself;Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,But seeming so, for my peculiar end.For when my outward action doth demonstrateThe native act and figure of my heartIn complement extern, 'tis not long afterBut I will wear my heart upon my sleeveFor daws to peck at: I am not what I am.Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 43-68


As the play opens, Iago has been passed over for promotion by his commander, Othello, in favor of an untried Michael Cassio. Despite his military experience, Iago says, he has been deemed of lesser worth than a mere “arithmetician,” and Iago must take the lesser position of “ancient” (ensign). When Roderigo states that he would rather be Othello’s hangman than to be humiliated by being placed in a lower position, Iago says that it is the “curse of service.” It is in response to Roderigo’s view that it would be better not to serve Othello at all that Iago makes the above speech. He confesses he does not serve Othello out of duty to Othello but rather out of self-interest. Iago professes disdain for those who serve out of “duty,” such a course being obsequious and fawning. Iago holds the view that there is a better class of servants—those who give the mere appearance of self-denying service but are in fact in service to themselves above all. Iago professes himself to be of this class. Although he may seem to be serving out of devotion to Othello, Iago would consider himself reproachable for submitting to the whims of any other person, no matter how noble that person may be. He confesses freely, “I am not what I am.”


Iago is one of the most disingenuous characters in the works of Shakespeare. He never presents his true self to anyone, nor does he reveal the true motives for his actions. The one exception is in this section, in which he is transparent to Roderigo about his non-transparency. He flatly states that he is not what he appears to be. With this confession, the audience is warned not to take anything he says at face value. This sets the stage for the observation of continuous irony in many instances and many conversations. Knowing him to be false, the audience can see through his words although the other characters are blind.

Iago states baldly, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him,” which means that he follows Othello to use him for Iago’s own ends. There is no sense of duty involved; it is pure self-interest and self-advancement. Iago’s sole virtue is the "virtue of selfishness," to borrow a phrase from the author and founder of the philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand. Self-interest is the only foundation that one’s life should be built on. Altruism is a lie, because even in aiding another, one is expecting some form of reciprocity, either from the individual, others, society, or God. There is no truly unselfish person. Iago is the epitome of pure selfishness.

Iago then goes on to say, “We cannot all be masters, nor all masters / Cannot be truly followed.” In the first phrase, Iago is being a bit disingenuous because he expects that he, and indeed all men, are to be masters of their own fate. In stating that not all masters can be truly followed, the insinuation is that not all masters (in this case, specifically Othello) deserve to be followed. Iago expected to be rewarded by an advance in rank. Othello has denied him, and thus Othello has proved himself not worthy of his leadership role.

Iago denigrates those servants who claim they serve out of love of their master. He is sickened by the fawning manners of those who seek only the advancement of their leader. Such service is unworthy of any decent human being. Being a servant is one thing; to be a “slave” is totally reprehensible. To Iago, there is no virtue in being virtuous, especially in unselfish devotion to a leader. Yet Iago freely chooses to appear to be virtuous, for without this dissemblance there is no chance of advancement. But to be so in truth would make him too vulnerable, “wearing his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at."

“I am not what I am,” Iago says, a very bold and significant statement. On the surface, he plainly warns Roderigo not to believe what he sees in Iago. His message to his friend is, “Don’t trust anyone, especially me.” But on a larger scale, this statement portrays the character of Iago as one of pure evil. Contrast this statement with that of Jehovah in the Book of Exodus: “I am what I am.” Jehovah is presenting himself to Moses with total transparency, the very nature of God. In stating the negative of this pronouncement, Iago takes upon himself the role of Lucifer, particularly as related in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lucifer has been slighted by God, and put down into a lower position, in a very literal way. Because of this humiliation, Lucifer proclaims himself the enemy of God and vows revenge. Yet he does not personally place himself in the battle. Rather, he uses Adam and Eve as tools to bring about his revenge. In the same way, Iago has been brought low and takes revenge on Othello (his master and commander, one might say his “god”), not by personal action, but through the manipulation of others. His sin is knowingly and purposefully causing others to sin. As Othello is a tool for Iago’s own advancement, other people are tools for his revenge.

In many ways, Iago has sold his soul to the devil. He has no virtue that is not a mask of vice. He has no contemplation of the benefit of others, but only for his own, and he bartered away his soul for the good of himself. In the words of Milton’s Lucifer, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” The only good is good to himself. Therefore, in this passage, Iago sets up the play’s plot structure and conflict; all the action stems from Iago manipulating other characters and wreaking havoc in their lives so that his own life may be what he feels is owed to him.

Essential Passage by Character: Othello

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194

OTHELLO: Soft you; a word or two before you go. I have done the state some service, and they know't. No more of that. I pray you, in your letters, When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unused to the melting mood, Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinal gum. Set you down this; And say besides, that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by the throat the circumcised dog And smote him, thus.LODOVICO: O bloody period!GRATIANO: All that's spoke is marr'd.OTHELLO: I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee. No way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 387-409


Roderigo is dead, killed by Iago. Emelia is dead, also killed by Iago. Desdemona has been killed by Othello. Iago himself, though wounded, still lives. Gratiano, Desdemona’s uncle, and another of her kinsmen, Lodovico, have arrived in Cyprus to witness the multiple tragedies. Iago is apprehended and will surely face the ultimate punishment—death. He has confessed to instigating the crimes of others, which will likely play a large part in his punishment. In the meantime, Othello is to be held as a closely guarded prisoner until he can be returned for trial to Venice. Cassio, already named as his successor, will rule in his stead.

Othello is concerned how this will be reported abroad. He is concerned about his reputation, but he is more concerned with the truth. He humbly points out that he has done “some service” to the state of Venice, a mild understatement. As far as his crime, he wishes it to be told fully, without toning down his flaws or making him more of a monster than he feels he is. His simple statement is that he “loved not wisely, but too well.” Although not easily given to jealousy, he was provoked by “the green-eyed monster” to commit this terrible deed. He threw away his “pearl of great price.”

Othello goes on to tell a story of one of his past adventures, but it is merely a ruse to distract the gathered company from his true purpose. Having a hidden weapon, he demonstrates his actions in his story by stabbing himself. Kissing Desdemona one last time, he dies.


In his final speech, Othello numbly accepts his fate, though it will be an acceptance of his own choosing and device. His decision to commit suicide rather than face the dishonor of a trial is reminiscent of the ancient Romans, who willingly sacrificed their lives once they knew that they had brought shame into those lives. The loss of honor is, to Othello, a capital offense, and the execution is his own responsibility.

The concern for one’s reputation is a major theme throughout the play. Iago’s reputation is slighted, both by being passed over for promotion and by being the subject of rumor concerning Emilia’s infidelity with Othello. Brabantio is concerned not just for the safety of his daughter but how such a marriage will affect his standing in the Venetian community. Desdemona is perplexed that Othello would have such suspicion against her character when she has carefully guarded her reputation in marital fidelity. Cassio, in Act 2, Scene 3, cries out, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” Othello’s guilt in murdering his wife, as well as being a part of the situation in which Emelia also lost her life, has damaged his heretofore unsullied reputation. Iago, though duplicitous in regard to Othello’s reputation yet genuine in regard to his own, states in Act 3, Scene 3: “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls.” A good name was the “credit score” of the Renaissance period. It was on one’s reputation alone that money, career advancement, and even marriage proposals were offered. Without a good name, you were hampered socially, financially, and spiritually. It is for this reason that Othello wants the story told accurately.

Othello points out that he has “done the state some service.” At this point he is being especially humble. His reputation as a military commander is without parallel. He is trusted explicitly in any engagement undertaken. Venice is the richer for there being Othello. Yet, in his modesty, he understates his own importance to Venice.

In regard to the unfortunate end to his life and career, Othello wants the facts to be told plainly yet honestly. He does not want any “spin” put on his actions. He has been dishonorable, not only for committing murder, but even for sinking to the level of jealousy. Though he is concerned about his act being thought better than it is, he is also adamant that he does not want to be thought worse than he is. He does not want to be portrayed as a monster purely out of malice. The deed is bad enough without embellishment. The simple message he wants understood is that he was “one who loved not wisely, but too well.”

But who is the object of this overabundant, unwise love? The obvious answer is Desdemona. Was he unwise to have chosen someone of a different race, a different generation? If the racial element did play a part in this tragedy, it was a part created by Iago. Race is not the primary cause of the death of Desdemona, nor of the suicide of Othello. Perhaps Othello is characterizing his jealousy in the light of an “unwise love,” a love that goes beyond the norm into an obsession. Yet Othello does not seem to be abnormally obsessed with his wife.

From another point of view, his loving “not wisely, but too well” could be a reference to his trust in Iago. Iago’s mercenary spirit must have been at times obvious to his commander. Othello did not seem to show discernment in keeping Iago in his company, but perhaps he did have some idea of Iago’s character, thus leading Othello to bypass Iago in the matter of promotion. Yet still he listened to Iago too closely in the matter of Cassio’s attentions to Desdemona. He placed too much trust in a completely untrustworthy man. With more wisdom, Othello could have avoided putting too much weight on the insinuations that Iago made against Desdemona.

The life and death of Othello follow the path of the archetypal tragic hero. From a place of honor, the hero has fallen through some tragic flaw. In this case, the fatal flaw is jealousy, the “green-eyed monster.” The tragedy, the loss, is well exemplified in the closing remarks of Cassio: Othello was “great of heart.”




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