Being one of the central themes in Othello and Hamlet, honor is used in very strange ways by Shakespeare. He has a way of showing how his characters can be very honorable or have a lack there of. He displays how honor is interwoven with personal integrity and how acts of attempting to keep a reputation can be confused with the acts of personal integrity. Lastly, he also displays how honor relates to the foresight seen by his characters. Honor can be connected to almost any actions made by any of the characters in these plays.
He really keeps the readers/viewers guessing at what the motivations are for all of his characters. I will take a look into these motivations and explain my thoughts on such things.
In these plays, honor is very important to the characters. It is a driving force, of sorts, for much of what the characters do. Along with that, judgments made about certain characters, by other characters, are almost always based on honor.
In Othello specifically, honor connects almost all of the actions and judgments throughout the play. Honor seems to be one of the main reasons Desdemona fell in love with Othello. Being much older and having so many military accomplishments sent Othello into an honorable light in Desdemona’s eyes. To me, that seems to be the sole reason she fell in love with him, in the first place.
His own character influenced her love thereafter, but initially, I believe it was solely his honor. Cassio is also attracted to this quality in Othello. His platonic love for Othello is based around how honorable Othello has been in his life, prior to the end of the play. In Iago’s eyes, however, Othello’s honor means nothing. He cannot comprehend why Othello got the job he has, while he is stuck in the same position. Iago gives the impression that Othello’s honor is almost a negative thing in his eyes. Despite Iago’s negative views, every judgment about Othello is based on how honorable he is. His behavior prior to the end of the play shows this honor as well.
In opposition to the honorable basis of thoughts about Othello, many characters choose less honorary behavior and are viewed dishonorably by other characters. Iago is a prime example of this. Not only do you see the lack of honor in quite literally everything Iago does, but you witness these negative thoughts about him as well. From Othello, you hear the sarcastically said “honest Iago”, and from Emilia, you hear many a complaint. Iago’s dishonorable behavior even produces dishonorable behavior from Emilia. She makes it seem like she constantly cheats on Iago, because of his neglectfulness.
Dishonorable behavior is just followed by more dishonorable behavior, in Shakespeare. This could not be more true when it comes to Hamlet. The entire play is based around the central occupation of greediness and revenge. The play starts off with the fact that King Hamlet has died. Right away, when Hamlet talks to the ghost of his deceased father, we find out that he was killed by his brother Claudius. This one event (not to belittle it) sparks a string of dishonorable behavior from Hamlet, who was once considered to be a very honorable intelligent young prince. Hamlet’s cunning, yet destructive, behavior however, could be argued as honorable, to a point, by some. His actions are based on the need for justice, which most people have within themselves. They are done in order to avenge his father’s death and make right in the world. This could be argued to be a noble and honorable cause. It could be, but I don’t think it would necessarily carry much weight.
Sure, the cause behind his actions are great, but the way he goes about achieving that cause loses much, if not all, validity. He tries to make right, but in the process of it all, he hurts Ophelia, which causes her to commit suicide, he mistakenly kills Polonius (with little or no remorse), and his actions lead to the death of almost all other characters. Hamlet should, of course, not be blamed entirely for these incidences. Obviously Claudius should bare more burden when it comes to all of these deaths. In means of applying this theme of dishonorable behavior being followed by more of the same: you could also argue that if Claudius had not killed his brother, than Hamlet may have never become as dishonorable as he became. He was, after all, in school, away from the kingdom. Presumably, Hamlet could have married Ophelia and led an honorable life as king after the natural death of his parents. ————-
When it comes to Shakespeare’s characters, there seems to be something missing: Integrity. While characters may have some personal integrity within themselves, there doesn’t seem to be many that are driven by what is right, rather than driven for their own gains. Want of personal integrity lags far behind the want of reputation in these plays. There’s an abundance of instances where characters act with integrity, but few show this integrity throughout an entire play. A good example is Michael Cassio. For the first part of the play, to me, he seemed to have a lot of integrity. Despite his dispute after drinking, he felt terrible about it, and he wanted to make it up to Othello. It sounded like all he wanted was forgiveness from his good friend. That made him have a lot of integrity in my eyes. But in the end, he’s seen visiting the prostitute and leading her along, for the fun of it.
Last of all, foresight in Shakespeare appears to be a quality with positives and negatives. The two largest forms of foresight in these two plays would have to be that of Hamlet and that of Iago. In terms of Hamlet: forgetting the terrible acts of violence and vulgarity that he committed in the spur of the moment, Hamlet’s foresight, when it came to Claudius, was very honorable. His use of foresight was to avenge his father’s death and to find justice in the world. Anything Hamlet did that was dishonorable had nothing to do with foresight; it had to do with his impulsiveness. In the other spectrum of things, Iago’s foresight is unquestionably dishonorable. His ability to perceive how people will react and what they will do in the future, while revered by Shakespeare the world over, is one of the most dishonorable instances in Shakespeare. His manipulation of people is only means of pitting them against each other in order to help himself in the future.
After reading these plays, it is hard to decide whether or not honor can still be legitimately given to any character. In my eyes, Hamlet, Cassio, Iago, and Othello have all lost real honor. Sure, aside from Iago, the others have done honorable things, but I don’t think I could attribute any of them honor fully. The only characters I would consider giving that to would be Desdemona (for trying to save Othello at the end of the play) and possibly Horatio (for helping Hamlet discover find out about Claudius and choosing to not die in order to tell his friends story). I don’t think I could do that however, because these acts of honor do not serve entirely large parts of the plays.
Honor is apparently a fickle thing. It will come and go in Shakespeare’s world. His plays make it very clear that he doesn’t believe many people can be truly honorable. Every once in a while he will convince us that one of his characters has this quality through and through, but he then snags that away from us. I’m convinced that, in these two plays, there is no truly honorable character. Some come close at moments, but spoils are constantly brought.