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Essential Passage by Theme: Reputation

IAGO:
I do beseech you—
Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,
As, I confess, it is my nature's plague
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy
Shapes faults that are not—that your wisdom yet,
From one that so imperfectly conceits,
Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble
Out 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 name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 166-182

Summary

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.

Analysis

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 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...

(The entire section is 3,541 words.)