Shakespeare's "Othello" and the Power of Language

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