Honor is of Essence

As far as last words of tragic heroes go, Shakespeare’s Othello’s are distinctly honorable. He says to Lodovico, nobleman who is returning to Venice:

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak…

Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme… (V, ii: 342-346)

Othello pleads Lodovico to relate the “unlucky deeds” truthfully, without mitigating or exaggerating his crimes. This truthful narration will presumably assure Othello’s honor in the future, for it will capture him “as [he] is”: a victim of guile who was “Perplexed in the extreme,” and therefore an “honorable murderer, if you will” (V, ii: 295). What a Moor indeed—so honorable that he worries of his reputation in a world where he will be dead!

The sensitive reader might perceive a subtle strangeness about these final words of Othello: is it not odd that Othello’s final utterances address only his future reputation? Are those words to expect from a man about to commit suicide? Perhaps it is Othello’s obsession with honor that strikes a funny chord: like a miser who carries his money to the grave, Othello embraces his respectable name to the death. Why should a...

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