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Othello /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Othello

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, however, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scene of Othello, for example, you will find the words certes (i.e., certainly), affined (i.e., bound, obliged), producted (i.e., produced), as well as expressions like forsooth, God bless the mark, and Zounds (i.e., by Christ’s wounds). Words and expressions of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Othello, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, the more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the first scene of Othello we find, for example, the words circumstance (meaning “circumlocution”), spinster (meaning “one who spins”), propose (meaning “converse”), peculiar (meaning “personal”), owe (meaning “own”), and bravery (meaning “impertinence, defiance”). Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own geography, history, and background mythology. In Othello, three such worlds are built. First is the world of Venice and its surrounding territory, created through references to gondoliers and “togèd consuls,” to “the magnifico,” to Florentines, to Janus, to the Venetian signiory, to “carracks” and “prizes.” These “local” references build the Venice that Othello and Desdemona, Iago, Cassio, and Brabantio inhabit for the first act of the play. Second is the world from which Othello has come, a world of “antres vast and deserts idle,” of Anthropophogi, of the tented field and the imminent deadly breach. In the opening scenes of Act 2, the language that has built the worlds of Venice and of Othello’s “extravagant” past is replaced with language that creates the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, to which the action moves—references to “high wrought floods,” to “barks” (i.e., ships), to “shots of courtesy,” to the “guttered rocks” and “congregated sands” of the ocean, to “the citadel” and the “court of guard.” Such local references will soon become a familiar part of your reading of the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes in order to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of a play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject or places the subject between the two parts of a verb (e.g., instead of “He goes,” we find “Goes he,” and instead of “He does go,” we find “Does he go”). In the opening scenes of Othello, when Iago says (1.1.61) “such a one do I profess myself” and when Brabantio says (1.1.178) “Gone she is,” they are using constructions that place the subject and verb in unusual positions.

Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Brabantio’s statement to Roderigo at 1.1.134, “This thou shalt answer,” is an example of such an inversion. (The normal order would be “Thou shalt answer this.”) Othello uses an inverted structure when he says, at 1.2.29–31, “I would not my unhousèd free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth” (where the “normal” structure would be “I would not put my unhousèd free condition into circumscription . . .”).

In some plays Shakespeare makes systematic use of inversions (Julius Caesar is one such play). In Othello, he more often uses sentence structures that involve instead the separation of words that would normally appear together. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Roderigo, when he says “I take it much unkindly / That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse / As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this” (1.1.1–3), separates subject and verb (“thou shouldst know”). Iago also separates subject and verb (shown here in italics) when he says “Three great ones of the city, / In personal suit to make me his lieutenant, / Off-capped to him” (1.1.9–11) and again when he says (1.1.13–14) “But he, as loving his own pride and purposes, / Evades them with a bombast circumstance.” In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters and placing the remaining words in their more normal order. The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss in rhythm or a shift in emphasiss.

Locating and if necessary rearranging words that “belong together” is especially helpful in passages that separate subjects from verbs and verbs from objects by long delaying or expanding interruptions. For example, when Iago tells Roderigo about having been passed over for the lieutenancy, he uses such an interrupted structure:

And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof

At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds

Christened and heathen, must be beleed and calmed

By debitor and creditor.                            (1.1.29–33)

Brabantio, accusing Othello of having used witchcraft on Desdemona, also uses an interrupted construction:

For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,

If she in chains of magic were not bound,

Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,

So opposite to marriage that she shunned

The wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation,

Would ever have, t’ incur a general mock,

Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom

Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight!


In both of these cases, the interruptions provide details that catch the audience up in the speeches. The separation of the basic sentence elements “I must be beleed and calmed” forces the audience to attend to supporting details (of Iago’s military experience, of the geographic regions where he had served Othello) while waiting for the basic sentence elements to come together; a similar effect is created when “Whether a maid would ever have run” is interrupted by details about Desdemona’s character (as perceived by her father) and by descriptions of moments from her past.

Occasionally, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until much subordinate material has already been given. At the council of the Venetian senators, for instance, the First Senator uses a delayed construction—

                                            When we consider

Th’ importancy of Cyprus to the Turk,

And let ourselves again but understand

That, as it more concerns the Turk than Rhodes,

So may he with more facile question bear it,

For that it stands not in such warlike brace,

But altogether lacks th’ abilities

That Rhodes is dressed in—if we make thought of


We must not think the Turk is so unskillful

To leave that latest which concerns him first


—delaying the basic sentence elements (“We must not think the Turk is so unskillful”) to the end of this very long sentence, thus holding audience attention as the relationship of Cyprus, Rhodes, and the Turks is explained.

Shakespeare’s sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions or delays but because he omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In some plays (Macbeth, for example) Shakespeare uses omissions to great dramatic effect, omitting words and parts of words to build compression and speed in the language of the play. In Othello this device is more rarely used, occurring primarily in such constructions as Brabantio’s “But if you know not this” (1.1.144), where the omission of the word “do” and the placing of “not” after “know” creates a regular iambic rhythm.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings. In many plays (Romeo and Juliet is a good example) Shakespeare uses puns frequently. In Othello they are found less often; when they are used (except in Iago’s “comic” verses in 2.1), they carry meaningful ambiguity or complexity. When Brabantio accuses Desdemona of “treason of the blood” (1.1.191), for instance, his pun on blood allows the phrase to mean both “betrayal of her father and family” and “rebellion of the passions”; when the word abused appears (it occurs eight times in this play), it often means both “deluded, deceived” and “violated, injured”; the word erring means both “wandering” and “sinning”; complexion means both “temperament” and “skin color”; and period, in Lodovico’s “O bloody period!” (5.2.418), signifies (powerfully) the end of Othello’s speech (a rhetorical term) and the final point or limit of his life. In this play that focuses so relentlessly on sexuality, many of the puns are on words like play (meaning “wager,” but carrying a secondary meaning of “engage in sexual sport”), cope (meaning “meet, encounter,” with a secondary meaning of “copulate”), and sport (meaning “fun,” but also “amorous play”).

It is possible to argue that, in the largest sense, puns are extremely important to Othello. The visual contrast of black Othello and white Desdemona, for example, is echoed and complicated in punlike wordplay, as Desdemona becomes seen by Othello as morally “black” and as Othello, who has been called “far more fair than black,” later talks about the “blackness” of his own face. A second set of punlike expressions turn on the word honest, whose various meanings play against each other throughout the play. Honest occurs more than forty times in Othello, almost always in reference to Iago—where it is both an indicator of his supposed truthfulness and a condescending term for a social inferior—and in reference to Desdemona, where, as is standard when it refers to a woman, it always means “chaste.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it is said to share common features. For instance, when Iago says (1.1.31–32) that he has been “beleed and calmed” by Cassio, he is using metaphoric language: as a way of saying that Cassio has interfered with his military career, he uses nautical terms, picturing himself and Cassio as sailing ships, with Cassio coming between Iago and the wind, putting Iago in the lee and thereby stopping his progress. In many of his more inflammatory metaphors, Iago pictures lovers as mating animals (as in the famous statement to Brabantio about Othello and Desdemona: “An old black ram is tupping [mating with] your white ewe”). And, after working out the details of his entrapment of Desdemona, Cassio, and Othello (2.3.373–82), Iago sums up his plot in graphical metaphorical language: “So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all”—where the qualities of pitch (a substance that is black, malodorous, and extremely sticky) make it the perfect substance for Iago to picture as helping him “enmesh” his victims.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. In the second scene of Othello, for example, Brabantio says “Down with him, thief!” Iago answers “You, Roderigo! Come, sir, I am for you,” and Othello says “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (73–77). In this passage, the stage action is obvious: i.e., several of the characters must draw their swords. Again, when, at 3.3.358–65, Emilia shows Iago a handkerchief, saying “Look, here ’tis,” and a few lines later, after his order to “Give it me,” she says “If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give ’t me again,” the stage action is fairly clear: Iago has snatched the handkerchief from her (or, less likely, she has handed it to him and then changed her mind). However, a bit earlier in that scene, at the crucial moment when the handkerchief is dropped, the action is not so clear. Othello complains of a headache, Desdemona offers to bind his head with her handkerchief, and Othello says “Your napkin [i.e., handkerchief] is too little. / Let it alone. Come, I’ll go in with you,” and he and Desdemona exit. Emilia, alone onstage, then says “I am glad I have found this napkin.” It is almost certain that Emilia picks the handkerchief up, but just how it fell and why neither Othello nor Desdemona saw it fall are matters that the director and the actors (and the reader, in imagination) must address. Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches a crucial scene like that in Act 4 in which Othello sees the gestures made by Cassio but cannot hear his words, or when one reads the play’s final scene with its complicated murders and attempted murders; in both of these scenes, implied stage action vitally affects our response to the play.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.