Lesson Plan

Shakespeare's Othello and the Power of Language

Painting of Othello weeping over Desdemona's body. Oil on canvas, ca. 1857.
Photo caption

Painting of Othello weeping over Desdemona's body. Oil on canvas, ca. 1857.

Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

"I am not what I am." (Othello, 1.1.65)

Despite Iago's confession to Rodrigo, he 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

Is loyalty a fault?

What is a tragic hero?

Can order come from chaos?

How is the "other" constructed?

Learning Objectives

Analyze dialogue for what is and is not stated to determine motive, meaning, and characteristics of the players. 

Analyze the text to determine the importance of figurative language and metaphors to character and plot development. 

Evaluate the extent to which Othello is a tragic hero.