English 10 and the Iago Challenge by Nicole Sintetos

In the Classroom:  By Nicole Sintetos, English & History Instructor

Students have long been trained to hold Shakespeare at arm's length, perhaps to avoid whatever contagious nerdiness lurks within each noble text.  Even my freshmen groan before opening their copy of Romeo and Juliet. When I ask them the root of this irrational prejudice, they say, "it is so boring--and hard."

Hard? Maybe. Boring? Blasphemous.

At Dublin, we want to teach Shakespeare so it comes alive, so that Shakespeare becomes a high-point, and not a low-point, of students’ high school careers.

Let me provide a case study featuring our current sophomore class. Last week they completed a reading of Othello. This play alone had THREE MURDERS  and lot of cringe-worthy I-can't believe-we-read-this-out-loud-in-class RISQUÉ JOKES. Plus, a smattering of psychopathic manipulation by the mastermind Iago, by far the most complex character in the play.

I realized that if I taught this play, the crux of the message needed to surpass simply an appreciation for the language, the metaphor, and the structure of the work. I have always been intrigued by the character Iago and I wanted to delve deeper into his motivation. I vividly recall reading the play my sophomore year of high school and thinking that this man would benefit greatly from some therapy and anger management courses; who else but a crazy person would purposefully create a web of deception with innocent peoples' lives on the line for the sake of revenge? I wondered if, without killing anyone, could we recreate the manipulation, the second-guessing, and the competitive unrest present within Othello in a class setting? Could students then relate to what Shakespeare created in his plot: a vacuum of uncertainty with a serious dose of distrust?

Hence, the birth of the  Iago Game, a Sophomore Class rite of passage. Each English class competes against the other to collect the most flags by solving a series of challenges.  But, they are warned that an Iago, or secret  mole, is planted in each class to sabotage their efforts. In order to win, they must work together as a class- but is there anyone they can really trust? 

This year, the mischief was in high demand. Dow and Warren Umbach solved a series of riddles leading them to the grave yard by campus at 7:30 in the morning to claim a flag. Katia Dermott solved some LSAT level logic problems revealing a random phone number; the person on the other side of the line shared the location of the flag only after quizzing her over the phone. Perhaps most memorable was Alexander Maxwell’s brilliant performance at morning meeting when he presented Mr. Weis with a memorized Shakespearean sonnet for his challenge.     

But, as the term progressed, the trust within each class began to dissolve. I got emails from students convinced that someone in the class was trying to sabotage them. Like Iago’s impact in the play, students began to feel, and see, falsehoods that were not really there.  The true irony of the situation was that this year I did not assign a single student to be Iago, and yet the game still worked just as well. Only three students (Noelia Calcano, Madeline Pastan, and Quinn Thomson) correctly deduced that Iago  did not actually exist.

Quinn reflected over email, “While it's more than likely that a person is Iago, I think it's possible that Iago is actually an idea given malicious sentience by those around it. If it doesn't exist in physical form, it can still affect people by being suggested. For example, if something goes wrong, the blame goes to the "Iago," even though it may have taken place due to unrelated circumstances.” BINGO. How quickly do we, just as the characters in the play, fall into this deeply human trap?

The magic of Shakespearean literature is not merely manifest in the genius of the word play.  It is in the deeply human hamartia in each tragedy and the equally cathartic release of finding unrequited love (or lust) in each comedy. You see, human nature is the key and the core of each work, no matter how far-fetched the plot, and if we can learn to tap into this well of humanness when teaching the text, there is no option but for the plot to come alive.