“Honest Iago” and “Thrice Gentle Cassio” in ‘Othello’
Throughout the entire play, we capture Othello’s perception of Iago, as an honest, loyal man who admires and respects Othello greatly, but this impression is recognized as an ironic view. For the reason that he is an evil, manipulative man who seeks every possible opportunity to destroy Othello’s life as well as Cassio’s and Desdemona’s. Cassio, who is portrayed as a better person, almost acting as a foil to Iago’s character, displays a gentle and kind nature to most of the characters within the play.
Cassio truly admires and respects Othello; but Othello misinterprets his actions and behaviour due to Iago’s wickedness.
At the start of the first scene, we become aware of Iago’s dishonesty and his wicked intentions and thirst for revenge over Othello, following from the statement:
“I follow him to serve my
Turn upon him”
He strives for power and believes the only way to gain this is by exploiting Othello in every possible way disregarding the consequences and giving no consideration of the outcome that may affect others around him.
This behaviour does not appear in Cassio’s character, as he shows true affection towards Othello and refers to him as a man with great power and honour. The statement illustrated below supports the phrase “thrice gentle Cassio”.
“Great Jove, Othello guard,
And swell his sail with the thine own powerful breath
That he may bless this day with his tall ship”
However, in act two scene three we identify some of Cassio’s weaknesses. Cassio tells Iago he has “very poor and unhappy brains for drinking”, and so allows himself to be persuaded by Iago to drink and ends up wounding Montano and fighting Roderigo, even though he was ordered by Othello to stay for the watch. This particular incident conveys an ironic view of the phrase “thrice gentle Cassio”, used by Des to describe his good character. As he weakened to the temptations of a drink, his ‘gentle’ nature was put aside and a new trait appeared which made him disobey the orders of the man that he respected and admired a great deal. Cassio knew that he has no control over a drink, yet he did not stop to think about the consequences and what he might do to those around him, this is evident from the fight that occurred between Montano, Roderigo and himself.
Despite the consequences of this Cassio continues to carry great respect and admiration towards Othello, whereas Iago sees him as a weak man and refers to him as an “old black ram”. Despite Iago’s evident feeling towards Othello, he cleverly manipulates him into believing that he loves him and looks out for him when he says “my lord, you know I love you”. This deliberate change in Iago’s tone and attitude indicates to us that he is a duplicitous and insincere man, which makes it impossible for him to be honest as he insults Othello to Brabantio and then deceives him by telling him he loves him.
Iago’s insincerity becomes clearer to us from his first soliloquy. We can see his motives and state of mind, as his character is unveiled before us. As a result, we begin to develop a cold and cruel view of Iago’s nature and brand him as the evil person in the play, with a mission to destroy anything that gets in his way in return for his self-righteous. His lack of respect for Othello contradicts the phrase “honest Iago”
“The moor is a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but
Seem to be so, and will as tenderly
Be led by th’ nose as asses are”
The animal imagery, which Iago uses, is very different to what an honest man would use. His insults towards Othello suggest that he is a malicious and spiteful person.
In comparison, Cassio’s character is presented to us as a man with good-natured attitude to almost all the characters in the play, in particular Desdemona who calls him “thrice-gentle Cassio”. Her statement is supported by Cassio’s courtly language, which is illustrated throughout the play. Cassio respects, and thinks highly of Desdemona, he states:
“Most fortunately: he hath achieved
A maid that paragons description and
Wild flame; one that excels the quirks
Of blazoning pens and in th’ essential
Vesture of creation does tire the inginer”
From this, Cassio is emphasising how fortunate Othello is to be married to a woman which is as dignified and respectable as Desdemona.
Iago, on the other hand, continuously refers to her in a lustful and sexual manner: “when she is sated with his body, she will find the error of her choice”; Iago is reducing her to sexual terms, clearly disrespecting her. This support Iago’s disloyalty as it is made explicit that Desdemona is an innocent person and is another of Iago’s victims.
Iago makes an astonishing remark about himself when he says: “I am not what I am”, implying two things; the first one being that he is a dishonest person and it is in his nature to deceive and lie to others around him. The second point is that he believes the only way to achieve his goal and fulfil his ego is by appearing to others, in the play, how humble and loyal he is to them, but as we have captured his real character, we know that this is not true.
Immediately after Iago’s vow to drive Othello “even to madness”, Othello tells Cassio that “Iago is most honest”. This particular phrase demonstrates a dramatic irony, which contradicts the “honest Iago” statement, as we are already aware of Iago’s true intentions and how well he manipulated Othello, hence portraying more of his dishonesty. Furthermore, in act three scene three, Iago throws false accusation in a conversation with Othello concerning his marriage to Desdemona. He does this very cunningly and advices Othello to “observe her well with Cassio”; implying that the two may be committing adultery, which we know is a complete fabrication of an innocent and platonic relationship between them. Iago tries harder to make Othello doubt his wife’s innocence by pointing out Othello’s lack of knowledge about Venetian women. He does this by convincing him that because he is an outsider, it is harder for him to understand and grasp their culture and their perception of life:
“I know our country disposition well-
In Venice, they do let God see the pranks
They do not dare show their husbands”
Once again, we are confronted with another statement, which clearly highlights the irony of the term “honest Iago”.
Towards the end of act three, we are introduced to Bianca, who takes the role as a courtesan. Bianca is deeply in love with Cassio, but we are quick to learn that it is a one sided love. Cassio refuses to share the same feelings and so treats her differently to the way he treats Emilia and Desdemona. This is clear by the way he welcomes and kisses Emilia, and respects and admires Desdemona when he says “the riches of the ship is come on shore.”
Due to Bianca’s profession, Cassio holds no affections towards her, yet he feels obliged to respect her presence, as a gentleman would, and not offend her in any way. Hence, when confronted he had no other option but to lie to her:
“How is’t with you, my most fair
Bianca? I’ faith, sweet love, I was
Coming to your house.”
We know he was not intending to go and see her. This therefore, can be interpreted in two different ways. Firstly, revealing a new quality of Cassio’s character as being somewhat of a hypocrite who wants to keep a good profile of himself to everyone around him, hence contradicting “thrice gentle Cassio”. Secondly, his good nature prevents him from upsetting her feelings, and so finds no other alternative but to lie to her, supporting “thrice gentle Cassio”.
Hypocrisy is one other recognizable trait in Iago’s character, whereby he says one thing and later contradicts himself by saying another. This is evident in a conversation between himself and Roderigo where he expresses his opinion of Cassio as a useless man not worthy of becoming lieutenant:
“Forsooth, a great arithmetician, one
Michael Cassio a Florentine a fellow almost
Damned by a fair wife that never
Set squadron in the field”
Nevertheless, when engaged in another conversation with Othello, he is quick to change his view about Cassio to suit the occasion;
“Tis fit that Cassio have his Place,
For sure he fills it up with great ability.”
In the above statement, Iago agrees with Othello that Cassio is the right person for the job as he fulfils all the requirements needed for being a lieutenant. We witness more of Iago’s hypocritical nature when he is involved in different conversation with Cassio, regarding Desdemona, he states:
“She is of free, so kind, so apt, so blest a disposition
That she holds it a vice in her goodness not to do
More than she is requested.”
However, we have previously captured a separate conversation between Iago and Roderigo arguing about Desdemona, here Iago states:
“If she had been blest she would never have loved the moor.
Blest pudding! Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand?
Didst not mark that?”
We know that this is not part of Desdemona’s character; nevertheless, Iago says this to Roderigo to manipulate him and make him feel jealous, as he loves Desdemona, and he is reducing her to sexual terms again. This is further evidence opposing the phrase “honest Iago”, as Iago’s contradiction is made clear, and as we observe the unfair judgments he posses for Desdemona lacking respect towards her.
It is therefore clear to us, from the play that Iago’s true nature revolves around dishonesty and deception. He was conspiring throughout the entire play, by performing numerous, ill-natured acts, which included lying to Othello about the handkerchief, and about the idea of Cassio and Desdemona committing adultery, even when he accuses Cassio of starting a fight. All these were for one cause only, which was to fulfil his malicious and revengeful desires. Ironically, he is far from being an honest man, as was referred to in the play. He is a manipulative, deceitful, and an untrustworthy person, who fooled many of the characters to get to what he wants.
Cassio, on the other hand, is not entirely a true gentleman as was first perceived, although he treats the other characters with respect, as highlighted throughout the play. As well as his loyalty and love, which he holds for Othello. Nevertheless, an unpleasant quality appears in him, which is apparent in his attitude towards Bianca contradicting the phrase “thrice gentle Cassio” . Cassio looks down at her yet he makes sure he does not hurt her, but later when engaged in a conversation with Iago laughs at her:
“I marry! what a customer!
Prithee bear some charity
To my wit, do not think
It so unwholesome
Ha, ha, ha!”
Here, Cassio finds the idea of marrying Bianca amusing, and describes himself as being her customer. Evidently, this should not be coming from a person who is regarded to be a true gentleman. Therefore, not entirely fulfilling the term “thrice gentle Cassio”, hence, contradicting the phrase and making it sound ironic. Read Iago’s Motives essay
Unfortunately, Othello misinterprets Cassio’s respect and affection for Desdemona due to Iago poisoning his mind with false thoughts. In contrast, Iago cannot be described as “honest Iago” as his duplicitous actions where highlighted throughout the entire play and so one can establish the irony of such reference, due to the contradiction-taking place.
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