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"’Tis Something, Nothing": Motive Hunting With Iago

Teachers' Rating:
  7 ratings


October 2012

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


Plays/Scenes Covered

Othello. Iago Scenes (1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3)

What's On for Today and Why
In this lesson, students will focus on Iago's motives in order to understand the cause of his villainy: allegorical evil or event-motivated revenge. Students will examine and perform a number of scenes in order to arrive at their conclusions through close interaction with Shakespeare's language. This lesson can be used during your study of the play or as a summary exercise to draw conclusions about Iago and the nature of evil. 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, “Deception in Othello"

An open space

How to Stage a Scene


What To Do

Screen the Folger YouTube video, Deception in Othello; and lead a discussion of key ideas raised by the Folger Theatre team. What do or don't students agree with?

Review two key sections of the video:

  • 0:00-1:03 (This segment offers views about the motives that drive Iago)
  • 8:18-end (This segment presents views from Michele Osherow, Othello’s dramaturg, and from Ian Merrill Peakes, the actor who plays Iago in this production, about what Iago represents figuratively)

Facilitate a discussion on the positions Osherow and Peakes offer, noting differences and similarities. In particular, focus on Osherow’s point that “Iago is allowed to stay alive [at the end of the play] because evil still exists in the world.”


Next, consider the idea of Iago as a character and/or as an allegorical figure. Engage students in a discussion of what an allegory/allegorical character is and what this shares with a play/character in a more realistic, modern context where a character’s actions appear to have psychological causes. Write words and phrases from this discussion on the board or on a piece or chart paper.


Next, lead a discussion on what Iago’s alleged motives are -- those items that he cites in the play that seem to motivate his actions as a non-allegorical human being. These include:

  • Iago’s lack of promotion to Othello’s lieutenant;
  • Iago’s suspicion that Othello has had sexual relations with Iago’s wife, Emilia:
  • Iago’s love for Desdemona;
  • His suspicion that Michael Cassio has had sexual relations with Emilia.

Once these two contrasting positions -- that Iago is an allegorical figure representing evil OR a modern-day man motivated by psychological causes -- are articulated, direct students to Iago’s final two lines, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (5.2.355-356). From this, suggest how Iago’s motives are never revealed for certain, and that actors, directors, and audiences can only build a case for their position(s).


Do not let the class reach any firm conclusions about Iago, if possible, at this point. Instead, break them into groups and assign students to stage the following scenes and passages (these do not have to be memorized). Each scene or monologue should be double-cast -- i.e., two Iagos and two Roderigos for 1.1, and so on; this will be explained below.

Once the scenes and monologues are double cast, designate one cast to emphasize the allegorical understanding of Iago’s motives (i.e., that he is the symbol of pure evil), and ask the other cast to emphasize his alleged psychologically-motivated reasons for revenge.


In order to do this well, student should work in groups and read their passage or monologue closely, taking care to identify and mark words, phrases and sentences that align with the direction they’ve been given.


Next, they should stage the scene simply -- props, costumes, and lighting aren’t necessary, but you should clear your classroom or move to your school’s stage, if possible. Remind them to focus on the words alone. For help with staging, see the handout below.


Once the class has had time to rehearse and stage their scenes, emphasizing the direction they’ve been given, then they should perform their scenes for the entire class in the order in which they appear in the play. You may have them perform sequentially -- i.e., have all the allegorical scenes performed together and vice versa -- or group them back-to-back.

Once this is complete, facilitate a debrief with your students in a circle by using the following prompts:

  • Begin a statement with the prefix, “I noticed . . .”
  • Have them complete the statement, “The allegorical scenes . . .”
  • Have them complete the statement, “The motivated scenes . . .”

Next, lead a group discussion about what they conclude about the character Iago, whether the Folger video seems accurate or not, and so on.

  • Are Iago’s alleged motives convincing? If so, why? If not, why? Encourage them to defend their positions with evidence from the text.
  • Does he seem to be pure evil? If so, why? If not, why?

Have students look at the structure of the speeches. Do his motives precede his villainous plans usually, or do they follow them? What might this mean? (For an excellent resource on the structure of Iago’s speeches, see Bernard Spevack’s book, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia UP, 1958).


How Did It Go?
  • Did students engage in a close reading of the play’s language?
  • Did students come away with a clearer understanding of allegory?
  • Were the students able to use the language of the play to achieve a more allegorical performance of the play or a more realistic one?
  • Did students feel that they needed to arrive at a definite answer, or were they comfortable with ambiguity?

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


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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