Rethinking Iago's jests in Othello II.i: honestas, imports and laughable deformity

Daniel Derrin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


An early scene in Act Two of Shakespeare's Othello is often cut or shortened. It is the one in which Iago jests with Desdemona while she waits and hopes for Othello to arrive safely in Cyprus (II.i.100-166). Critics and directors have found the scene jarring. Many productions have cut it and many editors dismissed it. This makes sense if one sees Iago's and Desdemona's exchange literally as farce, that is, as stuffing or filler. However, that perception flattens out what can instead be seen as a complex communal exchange of power and moral ideals and a delicate negotiation of a particular ethos - honestas - in a public setting, which cannot be characterized merely as an attack and a defence. This article develops a means of exploring the scene more fully by treating it as a serious dramatic exploration of Iago's persuasiveness and Desdemona's cleverness. I shall argue that the scene embodies a more complex exchange of social values than has been acknowledged. In doing so, I suggest that the rhetoric of jesting Shakespeare dramatizes here is a kind of efficacy that works by producing what is better described as a morally meaningful community than simply as a power structure facilitating self-interest in moral disguise.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)365-382
Number of pages18
JournalRenaissance Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Shakespeare
  • comedy
  • philosophy
  • rhetoric
  • jesting
  • laughter


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