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“Such Friends Are Thine Enemies": Dangerous Language in Othello

Teachers' Rating:
  9 ratings


October 2012

Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD


Plays/Scenes Covered
Iago’s soliloquies in 1.3, 2.1, 2.3, & 5.1
What's On for Today and Why
In this lesson, students will focus on Iago's soliloquies, in which he speaks directly to the audience, to explore how he uses language to win - and potentially lose - the sympathy of the audience. This lesson can be used during your study of the play or as a character wrap-up at the conclusion of your reading. This lesson should take two fifty-minute periods.
What You Need

Folger edition of Othello
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

Folger’s YouTube Video, “Othello’s Language

An open space



What To Do

Screen the Folger YouTube video, “Language in Othello” and lead a discussion of major points that students connect with based on their reading of the play.

Review three key sections of the video:

  • 00:00-:34 (opening comments by Casey Kaleba on the power of language in Othello);
  • 4:49-5:10 (Casey Kaleba: “One of the ideas Shakespeare is exploring in Othello is the ability for language to express and to hide truth. Othello is tricked not by deeds but by the clever manipulation of words. Desdemona dies because of words spoken about her. And Iago tells us directly his lies are merely free and honest advice”);
  • 9:13 - 9:30 (Michele Osherow:  “He [Iago] opens that game to the audience. And what’s so unnerving here is that we immediately become collaborators with Iago whether we like it or not because we’re his best friend. He starts talking to us immediately. We kind of like him. He makes us laugh. He’s very funny. And then when he’s stuck, he asks us for help”).

Facilitate a discussion that focuses on the power of language in Othello, with a particular eye to the quotes cited above.

  • How is language a tool of villainy?
  • What is it about language that makes it so ready-made for the kinds of action Iago takes in this play?
  • Can words always be counted on to communicate fixed meaning?
  • What potentially changes a word’s meaning(s)? Context? Experiences? Emotions?

After a general discussion, focus specifically on Iago’s relationship with the audience and particularly during those times when he’s alone on stage with us. Do students agree with Michele Osherow’s description of Iago that “we’re his best friend”? If so, why? If not, why?


Break the class into six groups of five (this assumes a class size of approximately 25-30 students), and assign them each one of Iago’s six speeches when he’s alone on stage and/or has an obvious aside (act, scene, and line references are to the Folger edition of Othello):

In their groups, have the students review the speech by reading around from full stop to full stop (periods, semi-colons, exclamation marks, etc.); they should look up any unfamiliar words and discuss any challenging passages.


Next, have one student deliver the speech to the rest of the group members who will have their backs turned to the speaker. (NB: this part of the lesson is inspired by an exercise called “Haunting and Loneliness” from Cicely Berry’s book, Text in Action [London: Virgin Publishing, 2001], pp. 233-34.)


The listeners should turn around and make eye contact with the person reading when they feel like a genuine connection is made -- i.e., when the speaker engages him or her with the words and with his or her delivery.


When a listener feels that the speaker has lost him or her, that listener should turn and face away from the speaker.


This should be repeated with every member of the the group so that each student has been a speaker and an audience member.


Once this is completed, each group should nominate one member of the group to be the speaker when the group returns to the class as a whole.


When individual group work is complete, the class should perform Iago’s soliloquies/asides in the order in which they appear in the play for the entire class; the speakers representing each group should line up on one side of the room, and the listeners should line up on the other side and the group exercise should now be done as a class. All listeners should participate in each reading.


When the class exercise is complete, have students stand or sit in a circle to do the following:

  • Begin an exercise debrief by having each student begin a statement with, “I noticed . . .”
  • Next, have each student complete a statement with the prompt, “Iago was most appealing when . . .”
  • Then, have each student complete the following: “Iago was most unlikeable when . . .”
  • Ask the class to look for discoveries and trends, particularly having to do with Iago’s language use. What are his words like?
  • Do the words and speeches stay the same or change as the play progresses? If so, how?

Finally, have the class turn to the Iago’s final three sentences, 5.2.355-56 (“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.”)


How does the audience react to these lines if we agree with Osherow’s claim that “we’re his best friend?” Do we feel betrayed by Iago because he doesn’t give us any more information for his actions than he gives to the other characters? How has our sympathy changed as a result of his actions and because of his treatment of us in the audience? Is there a difference in our responses to these two parts of Iago? Explore this.


A possible assessment might ask students to write a critical analysis of how their sympathy for Iago changes or stays the same as the play progresses. Whatever their personal responses are, they must offer a clear thesis, persuasive reasoning, specific examples from the text, and references to some of their discoveries when performing or listening to Iago’s speeches.


How Did It Go?
  • Did students engage in a close reading of Iago’s language?
  • Did students identify the ways language can win sympathy, even when spoken by an evil person?
  • Did students each have discoveries as a result of performing and listening to Iago’s speeches?
  • Did students have complicated responses if they found themselves liking a person who does awful things?


Transfer and Application

This lesson will work with a number of other Iago-like characters including:

  • Richard III, Richard III
  • Aaron, the Moor, Titus Andronicus
  • Don John, Much Ado About Nothing
  • Edmund, King Lear


If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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