A couple of weeks back, I took a look at Heaven and Hell. Not physically, of course. I’m just going to one of those (and it’s not the one with the rarely used stairway, it’s the one with the packed highway). No, I meant a view of Othello, shot through the prism of a concordance. For those who don’t know, a concordance is an exhaustive listing of the uses of any word within a given body of work. And if you’ve been following along for any length of time (or have just checked out the not-so-digital tools of the trade), I love the one over at OpenSource Shakespeare, I like to take a dive into it for words like “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing, “gulling” in Twelfth Night, “man” and “play” in As You Like It, “noble” and “honor” in Julius Caesar, “play” (again) in Hamlet, and “mercy” in Measure for Measure. And as I said, earlier in the month, I took a look at Heaven and Hell in Othello.
Today, I want to tackle another “H” word: Honest.
notice I didn’t bring up that other “H” word, honor; that’s because Othello ranks in the bottom third of the Canon when it comes to using the various forms of honor (BTW, tied for first are All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure–both with characters who are less than honorable [yeah, I’m looking at you Bertram and Angelo])
Now, you know if I’m bringing it up, I must have found something.
If you take its variations (like “honesty” and “honestly”), Othello contains 47 uses, far and away the most of any play in the Canon (Timon of Athens and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the next two most “honest” plays, have only 28 and 27 uses respectively).
In this play, Shakespeare concentrates on two specific meanings of the word–”chaste, virginal” and “truthful, trustworthy, sincere” (“honest, adj.; A.3b and A.4b, respectively” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 17 February 2016.)– but ones that both spring from the same root: “Worthy of honor, honorable, commendable” (“honest, adj.; A.1b” OED Online.). And there’s that word “honor” again; in Othello, it’s something to aspire to, but nowhere (or at least rarely) to be seen.
The “chaste” meaning is only used to describe (or denigrate) Desdemona. Othello uses it three times, while others use it four more times. In fact, I don’t think any of the Desdemona-centric uses of “honest” touch upon the “truthful” meaning. There’s an interesting sexism there, methinks.
Of “honest” uses, nearly a half are to describe Iago. Othello uses a variation of the word 13 times in reference to or in praise of his ancient; Iago says it of himself–both as a descriptor and mainly as something he should/does have–another 9 times. Even Cassio uses it to describe Iago. There may be a couple of “commendable” uses, but the vast majority are concerning “truthful[ness].” Not so blissfully ignorant of the truth, the other characters in the play don’t see the irony we see in its repetition.
Ironic, indeed, as the crux of the play is Othello’s doubt of Desdemona’s sexual honesty because the pestilence poured in his ear by “honest” (but definitely not truthful) Iago.
And what is the effect of this cause?
And as you can predict, Othello ranks high in the Canon for the number of “jealous” (and variation) uses. Only the comedy Merry Wives (which, remember, ranks high in “honesty”) has more usages, 19 to Othello’s 17 (no other play in the Canon reaches double digits). Othello has the most “jealous” usages; Merry Wives overtakes it with “jealousy|ies.” But the two are neck and neck, these plays about husbands whose fear of becoming a cuckold changes their behavior (Ford in a comically buffoonish way; Othello in its violently tragic manifestation).
There have been times in these last few months that I’ve wondered of the almost comically fast gullibility of Othello (remember he goes from loving and doting to devising her death within a single scene), how it would have fit perfectly in a comedy like Merry Wives. Then I’ve wondered if while Shakespeare was writing that earlier trifle, he saw the tragic possibilities and set out to explore them.
Just a thought.