The Role of Reputation in Othello In Shakespeare’s Othello, the antagonist, Iago, presents two polar opposite views of reputation. From a simple reading of the play it is obvious that Iago is a master manipulator, so it is important to the reader’s understanding of the play to sort through and wrestle with Iago’s conflicting statements about the value of reputation. Iago’s first revelation regarding on the value of reputation comes in act two, as Iago speaks with the distraught Cassio, who has just lost his lieutenancy.
Iago tells Michael Cassio “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser” (II. 3. 257-260). However only one act later, Iago delivers his second revelation about reputation when he tells the enraged Othello that a “Good name in man and woman is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash, but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed” (III.
. 155-161). From the play, it is clear that reputation is a central tenant to Iago’s modus operando, and Iago relies heavily on his “good name” as a means of credibility (Omer, Verona 105). But as much as Iago relies on his own reputation to mask his deceptions, so must others’ reputations be damaged from his lies. The rest of the play reveals how easily the other players’ reputations are tarnished, often without reason. The difficulty in deciphering Iago’s statements is that he often founds his manipulations in a shred of truth.
So if one’s reputation can be so easily ruined without proof and despite a history of honorable actions, is reputation worth defending? If so, is reputation useful if it is powerless to give the benefit of the doubt and not to reaffirm the character of those under attack? These are the questions that must be answered about the nature of reputation in order to separate the truth from Iago’s cunning web of lies surrounding one’s reputation. To provide more insight into Iago’s statements, it is necessary to further investigate the nature of Cassio and the situation surrounding his expulsion from Othello’s army.
Cassio is an accountant, and although young, he is well educated. Iago comments about him, “…a great arithmetician…” (I. 1. 20). Also, the reader gains insight into Cassio’s loyalty to Othello when he says to himself, “Great Jove, Othello guard and swell his sail with thine own powerful breath…” (II. 1. 83). Lines later, Desdimona refers to him as brave. Then, when Iago first invites Cassio to drink in the third scene of act two, Cassio responds “I am unfortunate in the infirmity, and dare not task my weakness with anymore [wine]” (II. . 36). Even from this simple response the reader may gather that Michael Cassio is responsible, knowing himself and his boundaries well, and also that Cassio is respectful even to his subordinates; he is humble with his refusal to continue drinking. But after Iago has manipulated Cassio into inebriation, a fight breaks out between Cassio and Roderigo, whom Iago has manipulated into disliking Cassio. Even when Othello confronts Cassio with his crime, Othello mentions how respected and out of character it is for Cassio to be brawling.
From these few examples, the reader may establish the character of Cassio to be learned, upright, responsible and loyal. A final proof of Cassio’s sound reputation comes from his response after losing his position. Cassio’s concern is not unemployment, nor sorrow for his misdoings, but only for the loss of his good name. Cassio laments, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation! ” (II. 3. 250).
It is clear, given Iago’s motives, that his denouncing of the value of reputation is to encourage Cassio, but the encouragement is provided only as means to Iago’s own twisted ends. Despite his good reputation, Othello seems to have no qualms for pinning Cassio as a drunken brawler. Even though Iago’s statement comes from evil intentions, it is still valid to ask whether reputation truly is an “idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. ” In Cassio’s case, his good reputation seems to have been earned faithfully, and it reflects his true character.
This truth points out the fallacy in the first part of Iago’s statement, “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition. ” The second part, “without merit and lost without deserving”, however seems to be true on the surface, but the accuracy of the statement is open to examination. Cassio’s reputation and credibility are instantly destroyed in Othello’s mind. There is no lack of evidence to support Cassio’s fault in the situation, but what is strangely absent is Othello’s investigation of the events leading up to the brawl.
Shakespeare forces the reader to suspend doubt, and Othello never connects the unlikelihood of the responsible Cassio transforming into the drunken, fighting Cassio. In this instance, Cassio’s good reputation is utterly powerless to offer a defense or cast doubt in Othello’s mind. This time, Cassio’s good reputation serves no higher purpose than to garner lip service from those around him. For Cassio, good reputation is no savior. Iago’s counter statement about reputation is revealed in another deceptive pitch, this time to Othello.
In his second spin on reputation, Iago reveals that “Good name…is the immediate jewel of the soul” (III. 3. 160). To understand and evaluate Iago’s claim, it is once again necessary to build the reputation of the players involved and analyze the context of the claim. In this instance, Iago presents his statement to an Othello who is growing increasingly suspicious of Desdimona and Cassio’s relationship. At this point, Cassio’s reputation has already been tarnished, and Othello holds him in contempt.
Still, Desdemona has proven all but blameless in every situation. By all accounts, she can be painted as nothing other than loyal and innocent. Cassio calls her modest and ladylike (II. 3. 23), and her father defends her reputation in the first act as being reserved and respectful (I. 3. 97). Desdemona’s biggest advocate, however, is Emilia. Emilia defends Desdemona to Othello after her death, comparing her to an angel and saying “…to say that she was false. Oh, she was heavenly true! ” (V. 2. 150).
Even just before her death, Desdemona demonstrates the highest form of loyalty imaginable under the circumstances, claiming that she was committing suicide rather that indicting Othello for her impending death. Iago’s purpose for his counterclaim on reputation now becomes more evident: he impresses the importance of reputation on Othello as to cast doubt on Desdemona’s purity. One would think given the mountain of evidence supporting Desdemona’s innocence and loyalty that Othello would stop to consider the conflicting information he is hearing.
Instead, good reputation is once again cast aside in favor of speculation. Counter everything that Othello had previously witnessed to be true about Desdemona, he is convinced of her guilt beyond doubt in little more than a single act. Thus far, reputation seems to be quite fickle indeed and moreover without substantial value. Before concluding an investigation of reputation in Othello, it is critical to analyze a third character, Iago. The master manipulator also has a reputation that is of critical importance to the play.
It is best summarized by a phrase often used by those referring to him: Honest Iago. While Shakespeare’s other characters earn their good reputations only to have them stolen away, Iago builds a reputation of impeccable honesty for himself out of purely evil actions and deceit (Schapiro 486). Throughout the play, each character gives his own impression of Iago’s “goodness”. Othello trusts Iago in the beginning of the play as his wife’s escort and tells those present he is “a man he is of honesty and trust” (I. 3. 84) , and later “Iago is most honest” (II. 3. 6). Even Cassio and Desdemona fall under Iago’s spell saying, “I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest” (III. 1. 40), and “O, that’s an honest fellow” (III. 3. 5). So it is that the most crooked and dishonest character secures the reputation as the most loyal and honest. Thus Othello paints a grim picture of the value of a good reputation. Reputations are either well deserved, only to be swindled away without just cause, or they are ill-gotten and used for evil.
Iago seems to have gotten it right when he told Cassio “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser” (II. 3. 257-260). Iago is able to coerce those around him by playing on each individual’s weakness (Omer, Verona 101). He is the only character in the play that is able to leverage his reputation to work for him, and his mastery of public perception proves he knows the true power of one’s reputation.
For the third time in Othello, characters’ reputations serve no redeeming purpose, and reputation functions only as a tool of manipulation for Iago against the pawns of his plan. Works Cited Omer, Haim, and Marcello Verona. “Doctor Iago’s Treatment Of Othello. ” American Journal Of Psychotherapy 45. 1 (1991):99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Sept. 2012 Schapiro, Barbara A. “Psychoanalysis And The Problem Of Evil: Debating Othello In The Classroom. ” American Imago 60. 4 (2003): 481. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Sept. 2012.
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