Decoding Paradox in Othello

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SWBAT demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings by decoding paradoxes and researching specific word choices.

Big Idea

Being fair and never proud: Iago's paradoxes cut like a knife.


In this lesson, we look at the character of Iago and his prowess in exposing Othello's tragic flaw--his trusting nature.  Iago is a master of language and he uses it to not only expose the flaws in others, but also in himself.  On the goading of Desdemona, Iago's language turns to paradox as he reveals his true view of women.  Iago is the personification of the misogynistic atmosphere in the Elizabethna era.  Accordingly, we use these paradoxes as a lesson in decoding Shakespeare's intricate language.

The Revelation of Tragic Flaw in Act I

20 minutes

In this section of my lesson, I have two objectives:  first, I would like to review a bit of Iago's plan to seek revenge on Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio.  If students can grasp this plot element, the remainder of the play should be easy for them to understand since the other Acts are simply Iago enacting his plan and the end result.  My second objective is to point out the concepts of tragic flaw and tragic hero.  I have included a PowerPoint that defines both and I have also added an example from The Great Gatsby.  Students should be quite familiar with Gatsby, which is the reason I use this work as my example.  I emphasize that Gatsby is a tragic hero because the novel is essentially his quest to achieve the American Dream and win over the girl of his dreams.  However, he is flawed to the point where his ambition becomes his obsession and leads to his death.   

I play a clip of Iago's soliloquy from Act I, scene iii.  And, I ask students to listen to the speech and identify Othello's tragic flaw and Iago's plan to take advantage of it.  In this discussion, I will randomly choose students and ask their opinions. I will also ask them to think about why Shakespeare constructed the character of Othello with a simple character flaw of being too trusting at this point in the play.

Students usually look at a tragic flaw or flaw in general as a negative character trait.  This exercise helps them see that Shakespeare employs a bit of antithesis in constructing Othello's flaw as something positive.  Othello's inability to gauge Iago's insincerity is the biggest contributor to Othello's demise.  Students often struggle in deciphering Othello's flaw from this speech because they are looking for a negative attribute.  This activity further indicates the extreme nefarious nature of Iago's character--how he will exploit goodness (in this case Othello's trusting nature) for his own gain.

Reading Othello, Act II, scenes i and ii

30 minutes

Again, in this section, I assign roles to students.  If I do not receive any volunteers, I will pull popsicle sticks and choose participants.  Although the language is quite challenging, the best way, in my opinion, to negotiate the difficulties is to jump right in.  When assigning roles, I am cognizant of students' reading abilities.  If I teach Othello at the beginning of the semester, I may test the water by having students read aloud a short piece such as a poem.  However, if I am quite confident that students can handle the language (in some cases with my help) I uses the popsicle stick method full throttle.  In the event, a student has an IEP/or 504 Accommodation, I will take their name out of the pool or I will "fix the deck" and assign a minor role with a few lines to a student who struggles reading aloud.  I am convinced that reading aloud is the best way to actually hear the language and learn how to decode it.

In this reading of Act II, scenes i and ii, I will ask students to pay attention to clues in the text where Iago is gathering evidence to "prove" to Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair.  The first occasion occurs when Cassio kisses Desdemona's hand, and Iago gloats that Cassio and Desdemona are falling into his plan to "ensnare" them both.  Secondly, I want students to notice the misogynistic culture of the Elizabethean era.  Women did not have many rights and were often disrespected.  This culture is personified in the character of Iago and comes forth in the many paradoxes he uses in scene i to characterize his view of women.

Explaining Paradoxes in Act II, scene i

20 minutes

In this section, I would like students to continue engaging with the language of Othello.  Using the footnotes in the play or perhaps a Shakespearean dictionary, students will choose one of the paradoxes in Iago's speech in which he playfully describes his view of women.  As previously stated, Shakespeare is demonstrating the misogynistic culture in the Elizabethan era.  Students will explain and decode the paradox in their own words, create a graphic representation, and comment how the paradox contributes to the misogynistic culture.  An example is attached below.