Human eyes are often deceived by appearance and convention. In Othello, by William Shakespeare, many characters are unable to see the truth of matters because they are seduced by what they want to hear rather than what they know to be true. Iago is a master of language and by twisting his words to fit the person, he gains control and completely convinces anyone without telling many lies. The irony in the use of the word ‘honest’ throughout Othello demonstrates the human being’s inability to see beyond a façade.
Othello is easiest to deceive because of the beliefs already imposed upon him by society. At first, he seems quick to trust others, calling Iago, “a man of honesty and trust”(I.iii.317). Iago should be the man Othello trusts least at this moment because it is anticipated that he will be angry for being passed over in promotion. Othello, however, is coarse and naïve in the workings of Italian society. He seems oblivious to Iago’s feelings and does not discern any of the indignation and hatred on Iago’s part. Iago masterfully worms himself in Othello’s confidences. When he is needed, he is always there to provide assistance, and he is willing to talk to Othello at any time, to pour poison into his mind. It is ironic that Othello so often repeats his belief in Iago’s honesty because Iago is the only dishonest person in the entire play. Yet, he manages to convince Othello that paranoia is appropriate and that everyone else cannot be trusted. As the play progresses, Othello becomes more and more dependant on Iago for advice and judgment. Othello is unable to discern Iago’s true persona because convention decrees that he is trustworthy and his own insecurities lend him to trust anyone who is willing to help him.
Iago’s power over others is his mastery of language and his ability to manipulate his words. He strategically places the word honest in reference to himself many times when speaking to Cassio and Othello. Subconsciously, their minds register the word and are more inclined to believe that his honesty is real. During the ‘Temptation’ scene, Iago makes accusations against Desdemona and finally provokes Othello into a furious outburst but returns immediately with, “To be direct and honest is not safe”(III.iii.433). He gives Othello a sense of guilt and regret for an unprovoked outburst. While Othello is feeling guilty, he does not consider that Iago may be lying to him. By claiming that he will no longer be honest, Iago makes Othello realize that his information is valuable. As much as Othello would like to believe that Desdemona is faithful to him, Iago’s method of presenting evidence points his sensibilities in the opposite direction. His innate insecurities also lead him to believe Iago that his beautiful wife might abandon him for a handsome, Caucasian man.
The women in the play, Emilia and Desdemona, are also affected by the intrigue unfolding around them. Desdemona is the most obviously affected because Othello’s behavior towards her changes drastically in a very short amount of time. From the openly loving scenes in the beginning of the play, it quickly shifts to the hostile and suspicious accusations of, “Come, swear it, damn thyself; Swear thou art honest”(IV.ii.46,49). Due to Iago’s intervention, Othello has been completely duped to believe in the lies that Iago spouts into his ear. Ironically, he believes that Desdemona, the most honest and faithful of all people, is a strumpet and a whore. Never in the past has he had any reason to doubt Desdemona’s sincerity and love for him. He is unable to see the truth that shines from Desdemona’s entire being. Her bewildered and hurt behavior when he strikes her is not feigned and knowing Desdemona, could not have been faked. He cannot see her honesty because of his ignorance in believing Iago.
Emilia is the first to realize what atrocity her husband has committed but she, too, remains in oblivion to his plot until it is too late. Emilia is remarkably intelligent and clear-sighted, more so than Othello or Desdemona because of her detachment from the entire situation. She keeps an emotional distance and is able to see things as an impartial observer, until the end. As Othello’s behavior becomes suspicious, Emilia speculates that, “The Moor's abused by some most villainous knave / O heaven, that such companions thou'dst unfold, / And put in every honest hand a whip / To lash the rascals naked through the world” (IV.ii.171-175). Her guess is absolutely correct, but ironically she does not recognize whom she is describing. She is married to the man, yet she is only aware of what he is willing to show her. The façade that he presents is not his true nature and Emilia knows this, but she is practical and condones his actions as long as they are not too drastic. She believes that Iago would not stoop to such measures as to make Othello doubt Desdemona to serve his own ends. This plot encroaches on forbidden territory, her love for her mistress Desdemona. Emilia is the only one who understands that Iago’s personality is a façade but even she does not know what terrible things lie hidden behind it.
The ability to see clearly is an enviable trait. Not many possess it because emotions and belief systems always seem to get in the way. In Othello, this blindness leads to the death of innocents and sorrow. It is important for human beings to do their utmost to understand exactly what a situation entails. One cannot take things at face value but must question and test the validity of all statements. If people could remember to do so, though it is no guarantee, one could reduce misunderstandings and improve the quality of life among all human beings.