Envy and Honor in Shakespeare’s Othello

In the Shakespearean tragedy of Othello jealousy is a major driving force behind the inner workings of the plot. It comes in varying forms from each character, such as jealousy of the honor that men esteem themselves with, to jealousy in the lustful desires of women they have.

The characters’ jealous emotions are evident from the opening scene to the culmination of Othello’s suicide in the end. Interestingly enough the character Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant, plays an integral role in both aforementioned scenes, and throughout as the source of the jealousy woven throughout the plot.

Cassio’s persona embodies a number of themes that come across in the play. He is what the men of the play both admire in themselves and jealously despise all at once, largely because of his ease in relations with the women of the play. The play’s assumed hero Othello and villain Iago succumb to their own demise leaving innocent honor and truth to survive in Cassio. Thus making him the stand-alone example of what men ought to be and often fail to become in the society Shakespeare reflects in the play. Though within this reflection Cassio’s character, which may be virtuous, raises certain questions of how much one should be concerned of their reputation in society.

Even the Dramatis Personae has Cassio listed as the “honorable lieutenant” and so his virtuous nature is implied from the start. He is established throughout the play as a character we readily accept as not only Iago’s initial jealousy, but also eventually Othello’s. Personified as a loyal man, Cassio is dutiful and attentive to Othello as well as trusting to all including even the villain as he sincerely calls him “honest Iago” (Act 2, scene 3, ln.335). These both being important for Iago not only to toy with Cassio, but for Othello to plausibly believe his wife Desdemona would love another.

There is also Roderigo; the play’s fool who victimized by Iago’s scheme becomes henchman in the plan to crush Othello. Having a lustful affection for Desdemona, Roderigo is also tricked into a jealous fit of Cassio by Iago. Describing Cassio to Roderigo as “handsome, young and hath all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after”, Iago paints him as the perfect candidate to suit Othello’s jealousy (Act 2, Scene 1, ln.245).

A great amount of pressure has been placed on Cassio from the jealousy of Iago, Roderigo and Othello. The origin of this jealous wave originates of course from Iago at the beginning of the play as he complains to Roderigo about Othello promoting Cassio to lieutenant. Iago claims Cassio is but a mere “arithmetician” with no practical experience in warfare, obviously upset he has not been given the promotion instead (Act 1, scene 1, ln.16). Here is where Iago’s plan begins to make Cassio the target of a jealous rage from Othello. Again Iago describes Cassio as the perfect ploy as he is “a proper manâÂ?¦” and “he hath a person and a smooth dispose, to be suspected – framed to make women false (Act 1, scene 3, ln.383 and 388).

One does believe it possible that Cassio could woo any woman he wants as both Desdemona and Emilia, Iago’s wife, have a flirtatious affection for Cassio and he responds with charming gestures and words. Though his charm is innocent it is reason more for Iago to despise him and for Othello to feel threatened. This involves a deeper psychology as Desdemona and Emilia’s affectionate ways are not exclusive to Cassio. They are both fair and kind to their husbands, and even speak affectionately of Ludovico, the Venetian, as “a proper man,” Iago’s same description of Cassio (Act 4, scene 3, ln.36). For Othello to be jealous of his wife’s affection towards Cassio, he must be blind of her loving ways to others in general. Emilia sums up this psychological state when she speaks of jealous souls as “not ever jealous for the cause, but jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster begot upon itself, born on itself” (Act 3, scene 4 ln.158).

As an archetype of a noble soldier loyally invested to his commanding officer, the virtuous values Cassio exemplifies are the cause of jealousy. Cassio, the individual or singular character does not intend of strive to make men envy him. It is Iago and Roderigo’s own short comings, as well as their deception of Othello that are too blame for the jealousy. Iago admits this shortcoming to Roderigo when he says, “I am not what I am”, in referring to wearing his heart upon his sleeve as a symbol of honor (Act 1, scene 1 ln.61). He means that though he acts according to his desire to be honorable, he is not truly that way.

This statement from Iago comes full circle in the last scene when Othello says, “speak of me as I am”, as a request to the Venetian gentlemen representing the state (Act 5, scene 2, ln.338). Here Othello expresses his desire to be remembered honorable, as does Iago his envious desire to be honorable and this virtue is seen from beginning to end in Cassio only. This can be applied in a philosophical sense in that the play has two extremes in the virtue of honor. Othello is so consumed by the emotion of his excessive sense of honor towards Desdemona and Cassio both that it gets the best of him when it transforms to envy. It is transformed by Iago, who struggles at the other end of the extreme in a deficiency of honor or any virtuous qualities. The medium of this power struggle is Cassio who is honorable in his action; yet still self motivated enough to be vainly concerned of his reputation.

When Othello demotes Cassio for the falsely accused act of injuring Montano the governor, this vain concern becomes evident. Though this is somewhat redeemed when Cassio recruits Desdemona to advocate on his behalf to Othello and says to her “I am ill at ease, unfit for mine own purposes” (Act 3, scene 3, ln.32). This noble humbleness is even still used against him as Iago makes it seem to Othello an act of guilt and embarrassment. As the plot progresses Cassio is trapped by Iago’s deceit of Othello.

Cassio embodies this theme of honor in two ways as well as serves the envy of both men’s eyes. Once the spat of green envy Iago choked on, Cassio becomes the venomous spit he lures Othello with to his doom. His persona is what both men cannot fully be and is a complex understatement of that which Shakespeare questions of society through the play. At what cost do we afford out reputation to be honorable or when do we consider our reputation of honor more important than the virtue itself?

Of all who where deceived by Iago’s web of lies it is Cassio and as should be mentioned Emilia who survive and stand as example. They both lay witness to the crimes and tragedy and to emphasize their roles, they do so to Lodovico and the Venetian gentlemen symbolizing the state. This envelopes a message well received about what characters ought be respected as having traits worth embracing. Both were loyal, honorable, truthful, and trusting to those closest to them who even mistakenly caused much harm. Cassio upheld his virtuous reputation even when to whom it mattered most forsake him and in the end saw that all that matters is that we are “great of heart” (Act 5, scene 2, ln.357).

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