Portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello by Carl Van Vechten
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory
I am not what I am"
-- Iago to Rodrigo (Othello 1.1.65)
Despite the truth of Iago's confession to Rodrigo that he is not what he appears to be, his gullible sidekick continues to trust this two-faced "confidante" who swears "by Janus," and who sows doubt, destruction and despair in the paths of all he encounters. How? How is Iago able to convince one and all that he is, as he is constantly called, "honest Iago"?
Much of the answer must lie in Iago's skillful manipulation of rhetorical skills. A puppeteer of the psyche, Iago pulls the strings of those who should know better with a battery of verbal weapons. In his soliloquies and dialogues he reveals himself to the audience to be a master of connotative and metaphoric language, inflammatory imagery, emotional appeals, well-placed silences, dubious hesitations, leading questions, meaningful repetition, and sly hints. Indeed, Iago is so good at lying that he is able to convince even himself that he has the soundest of reasons to destroy Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio.
Iago's convincing rhetoric clearly reveals what a powerful-and dangerous-tool language can be, especially when used by the eloquent, but unscrupulous, individual. In this lesson, students explore the basis of Iago's persuasive power by analyzing his astonishing command of rhetoric and figurative language. The diverse set of activities below include short group performances, writing exercises, and the guided use of online dictionaries and concordances to study Shakespeare's language.
But what is a Moor and what did it mean to be a Moor in Shakespeare's time? In helping the students answer these questions, the teacher could refer to three websites:
1. A remarkable resource maintained by the University of Toronto, the Early Modern English Dictionary Database (EMEDD) makes accessible the contents of dictionaries, glossaries, grammars, and encyclopedias published in England from 1500 to 1660. EMEDD is a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr.Shakespeare and the Internet.
2. Internet Public Library, an EDSITEment-reviewed site, offers a host of modern dictionaries for reference.
3. Teaching Shakespeare, an EDSITEment-reviewed site produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, offers an extensive archive of lesson plans on Othello along with a comprehensive Curriculum Guide for Teacher and Students on Othello. Additonal reading and media resources for Shakespeare's Othello can be found under Folger's Discover Shakespeare tab.
Chicago's Shakespeare Theatre essay, 1604 and All That , along with Washington DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company's A Cultural Context for Othello, and Acting Shakespeare's Moor, provide insights into what it meant to be a moor in Shakespeare's time. For definitions of "Moor" contemporary with Shakespeare, one's best bet is to go first to the EMEDD, where one discovers a whole host of definitions from 1550-1598. Among these definitions is the following: "a blacke Moore, or man of Ethiope … a Moore or blackeman, and it signifieth also the mulberie tree." A useful follow up to the EMEDD comes from the Internet Public Library's American Heritage Dictionary, which offers the narrower modern definition of "Moor" as "1. a member of a Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent, now living chiefly in northwest Africa. 2. One of the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century and established a civilization in Andalusia that lasted until the late 15th century."
Either as an in-class exercise or as homework, you can ask students to examine Iago's speech to Roderigo (1.1. 41–65) for what he says about himself and how he describes himself. Students should translate and rewrite what Iago says into modern English.
Also, ask students to examine and write down Iago's reasons for wishing to appear false to Othello (see especially 1.1.8–33; I.3.368–386; and 2.1.268–294). What are the reasons? Is there any evidence for these reasons? If not, how does Iago use words to convince himself that he is completely justified in destroying Othello? That is, does Iago use any rhetorical devices to convince himself that he is in the right?
Students' written work can form the basis for the next class discussion.
After sharing the definitions of "jealousy," "cuckold," and "monster" with the class, and after noting their prevalence in the play, begin discussion with the following questions: How do these words affect a man such as Othello? Does Iago use other words that would also alarm him?
In-class work with Handout
In 3.3.338–480, which lines show that Othello is still a rational human being, but one torn by doubt? Which lines show that Othello has turned into the "green-eyed monster" of which Iago told him?
In 3.3.338–480, identify the rhetorical devices that Iago uses to make sure that Othello is ensnared in his web of deceit.
In 3.3.338–480, identify also Othello's weaknesses that allow him to fall for Iago's evil persuasion.
In 4.1.19–45, what are the hypothetical situations Iago imagines between a woman and a man (namely Desdemona and Cassio)? What images does Iago use to torment Othello? Which of Othello's many insecurities do these images affect? What is the result of Iago's language?
At the end of the play Iago discovers that even his verbal sparring cannot save him, he resorts to silence: "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word" (V, 2, 302–303). Ironically, it is his refusal to speak that inevitably enmeshes him in his own web of deceit; it is his silence that elicits Othello's tragic recognition of his crime and of what he has become. Indeed, in terms of eloquence, Othello-not Iago—has the final word.
In class, reread the passages cited above. Why does Iago choose silence in lines 296–301? Does Othello's final speech redeem him? Examine the speech for the metaphors and images he uses. To what extent has Othello become a tragic hero?
Students shall have a choice of doing one of two things: either writing and performing a persuasive speech OR writing an essay in which persuasive technique in the play is analyzed.
8-12 class periods