Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Shakespeare's "Othello" and the Power of Language

Created September 7, 2010


The Lesson


Shakespeare's "Othello" and the Power of Language

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Iago use language to deceive others? How does Iago convince Othello that Cassio is a drunk, disloyal soldier, or that Desdemona is a cunning whore? Why does Iago use his rhetoric and acting skills to destroy others? What drives him? Who and what is Iago?

Learning Objectives

  • Read closely and analyze Iago's rhetoric in specific monologues and dialogues with other characters
  • Study what Iago says (his word choice) and how he says it (his superb acting), as well as what he refrains from saying (the silence that spurs his listeners on to imagining the worst or to realizing the worst about themselves)
  • Learn some basic rhetorical terms
  • Discover the sometimes dangerous power of language

Preparation Instructions

  • Shakespeare's works online: Standard online editions of most of Shakespeare's works, including Othello, are available from the MIT Shakespeare Homepage, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet. (All links in this lesson to the text of the play are to the MIT edition.)
    • Iago's mastery of rhetoric: So they can more fully appreciate Iago's rhetorical skill, students should be introduced to (or reminded about) rhetoric and rhetorical devices before jumping immediately into the play. The EDSITEment-reviewed Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric offers useful definitions and examples of all the following terms:

      appeals to reason, emotions, and character (logos, pathos, ethos)
      repetition (of specific words and ideas)
      Other terms, not mentioned on this website but also useful for the study of Othello, include image, connotative language, and leading questions.

      By giving their attention to Iago's rhetorical skills, students will see how he uses language to create a convincing, albeit deceptive, identity for himself; Iago also creates equally untrue identities for others, resulting in a fateful-if not fatal-outcome for all concerned. One strategy for helping students to focus on the details of Iago's language would be to provide them with a handout of the key rhetorical terms to be used throughout the reading of Othello. Or, if the technology is available at your school, you could display Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric via computer and LCD projector to the class (with the webpage displayed, just click on the words that the students will need to know).
  • Othello as a stranger in a strange land: In order to understand how and why Iago's rhetoric might work so effectively against Othello, students should also be made aware of the powerful general's vulnerability: he is a Moor in an alien society, first in the city of Venice and then on the isle of Cyprus. In short, Othello is an "other," and the fact that he is a Moor surrounded by Italians and Cypriots only emphasizes his difference.

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."

  • Lastly, students should be introduced to the Roman god Janus. It is the image of Janus that Shakespeare clearly associates with Iago to emphasize and cast a negative slant on Iago's "two-faced" speech. According to Bullfinch's Mythology,  Janus was the porter of heaven. He opens the year and January. the first month, is named in honor of him.  In this way, Janus is the guardian deity of doorways and gates, and is commonly represented with two heads, because every door looks two ways.  Learn more about the god, Janus and his month of January from the Internet Sacred Texts Archive. Visual aids such as this image from the Vatican Museum  should help students better understand Iago's Janus-like nature as a man who speaks from two sides of his face; or as a student once commented, with a "forked tongue." Further materials related to Janus can be located on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource, Perseus Project.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Act I, scene 1, lines 86–91, 108–112 In-Class acting and discussion of Othello
  • Before introducing this activity, download and copy the worksheet, "Zounds, sir, you're robbed," available here as a .pdf file. This worksheet will be used by student groups to complete an analysis of Iago's language in the first scene of the play.
  • For the two cited passages from Act 1, scene 1, students will analyze Iago's description of Desdemona's flight with Othello to her unknowing father, Brabantio. Have 3 students enact and read aloud the roles of Roderigo, Iago, and Brabantio. Divide the rest of the class into 2 groups. As the scene is acted and read aloud, group 1 should make a list of the metaphors and images that Iago associates with Othello and Desdemona. This group should also characterize these images. Group 2 should determine what rhetorical appeals are used here and why.
  • When the actors have completed their readings, have group 1 use the worksheet 1, "Zounds, sir, you're robbed," to list the metaphors that Iago uses to describe Othello and Desdemona. As a class, discuss the images and ask, "what makes them so offensive-especially to the father of the daughter being described?" Why doesn't Iago just say, "Desdemona has married the noble general, Othello"? Furthermore, how does Iago characterize Desdemona's and Othello's relationship? Through his eyes, is their relationship one of love or lust? And how would this point of view affect Brabantio, a proud father of a much-cherished daughter? Group 2 should then state what rhetorical appeals Iago makes to Brabantio. Does Iago use appeals of pathos, ethos, or logos? Which lines show these appeals? The entire class should discuss what psychological effects Iago's words have on Brabantio.
  • Conclude the class by asking the students how they view Iago, Desdemona, Othello, and Brabantio as based on what they have read and discussed.
Activity 2. Four key passages: 1.1.41–65; I.i.8-33; I.3.368–386; 2.1.268–294 "Knavery's plain face is never seen till used."

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.

Activity 3. Act 1, scene 3, lines 381–82 "The Moor is of a free and open nature, / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so."
  • This activity involves research and written class work for 4 groups of students. Before dividing students into groups, initiate a class discussion with the following observation and question: The characters in the play refer to Iago as "honest." What do we mean today when we say someone is honest?
  • After a discussion of what "honest" means in today's society, divide the students up into four groups. Each group must answer in writing the following question: What did it mean to be "honest" in Shakespeare's time? The groups will consult the Lexicons of Early Modern English Database (LEME) to find the meaning(s) of "honest." (Hint: the word may have a different meaning for a man and for a woman.)
  • Each group should also be assigned to trace one character's "honesty" throughout the play. For example, one group should have Iago, another Othello, another Cassio, and still another Desdemona. They should then use the Electronic Literature Foundation's Othello available through Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet, to see how many times the word "honest" appears, and how many times it appears in regard to their character's name. The students in each group should take careful notes of their findings not only because they will be expected to share their findings with the rest of the class, but also because at the play's end they may write a short essay on the honesty of their group's character (see Suggested Activity 7, below).
Activity 4. Act III, scene 3, 92: "Chaos is come again" Act III, scene 3, 93–280: Iago preys upon Othello
  • Either as an in-class exercise or as a homework assignment, students can use worksheet 2, "Chaos is Come Again," to keep a running count of the number of times Iago uses repetition, leading questions, hesitation, intimation, and rhetorical appeals to unsettle Othello's mind in 3.3.93–280. For each device, students should note the effect it is having on Othello's state of mind.
  • In class, the teacher should focus on Iago's introduction of the words "jealousy," "cuckold" and "monster" into his rhetoric. It would be useful for the teacher to find the definitions of these words in the Lexicons of Early Modern English Database (LEME) and to share the definitions with the students either through a handout or by a computer/LCD hook up. It would also be interesting for the teacher to run a concordance search for the number of times the above words are used in the play and who says them.

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?

Activity 5. Act III, scene 3, line 452: "O, blood, blood, blood!" Act III, scene 3, lines 338–480: The effect of Iago's rhetoric on Othello Act IV, scene 1, line 19–45: driving Othello to madness

In-class work with Handout

Use the worksheet 3, in class for student groups. Each group should use the sheet to record their responses to the following questions:

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?
Activity 6. Act V, scene 2, line 300: "Demand me nothing; what you know, you know" Act V, scene 2, line 337–338: "When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,/ Speak of me as I am" (V, 2,) Act V, scene 2, lines 296–301 and 334–352

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?

Activity 7. Pulling it all together-the Written and the Spoken Word

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.

  • Capstone Assignment #1: Two Speech Ideas
    • The "Two-faced" Speech. This speech requires that three students and the rest of the class to work together. One will play "Iago 1" (the persuasive Iago), in an imagined scene wherein he tries to convince his wife, Emilia, to give him Desdemona's handkerchief. The other student will play "Iago 2" (the truth-teller). The third student will play Emilia, and the rest of the class will play the discerning audience.
      • Iago 1 will address Emilia and ply her with as many persuasive appeals he can think of to convince her to hand over the handkerchief.
      • After Iago 1 finishes brief parts of his plea, Iago 2 will, after Iago 1 speaks, tell the class exactly what he is trying to do as his "good face" speaks. In other words, Iago 2, the truth-teller, reveals what really lies behind Iago 1's blandishments. After the speech, first Emilia and then the class will have to decide whether Iago should get the handkerchief or not. Both Emilia and the class will have to state their reasons for handing over the handkerchief or not.
    • The Desdemona Defense Speech. In this speech the students will each pretend to be Desdemona. In the play, she did not effectively deter Othello from altering his misguided opinion that she is a whore; inevitably, her failure frustrates many students who say, "If she just spoke up for herself things will be different!". In the students' speeches, they need to come up with the words, arguments, and appeals that could convince a jealous man that his wife is innocent. These speeches may also be performed for the class.
  • Capstone Assignment #2: Two Paper Topic Ideas
    • The power of language. As seen throughout the play, Iago persuades people to do his will. In your essay, write a thesis that states exactly what it is Iago achieves—or tries to achieve—through his use of persuasive language. Then use specific examples from the text to show how Iago achieves or fails to achieve those goals.
    • Honesty. Earlier in our study of the play, we discussed the various meanings of "honest" and saw how that word applied to Iago, Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona. In an essay, discuss why honesty-or the reputation for being honest or the lack of honesty-is so important in Shakespeare's Othello.

Extending The Lesson

  • For further evidence of Iago's successful persuasive techniques, one might also profitably examine Iago's interactions with Roderigo (see 1.3. 297-364) and with Michael Cassio (see 2.3.239-302). (The irony of Iago's stand on reputation, in his speech to Cassio, is that it is the exact opposite of what he does throughout the play; here as elsewhere, he relies firmly on his reputation as being an "honest" man).
  • Further study of Iago as being an uncharacteristically compelling villain would be interesting to pursue. See Gilchrist, K. J. Approximations: Iago as a Plautine leno (from West Virginia Shakespeare and Renaissance Association Selected Papers (SRASP), Volume 20, 1997), a link on Mr. Shakespeare and the Internet. In this essay, Gilchrist argues that Iago's literary heritage may be traced back to Plautus' leno or pimp figure, as well as to Plautus' agelast, a non-laugher or kill-joy, someone who cannot enjoy life or the fact that others might be happy and successful. The article induces useful speculation about how Iago's greedy obsession with sex, money, and jealousy might explain his ill will towards Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona. The article is useful primarily for teachers who might wish to ask their students why Iago behaves as he does. Is he simply evil? Are there explanations for his behavior? Do explanations even matter?
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

8-12 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Writing skills