Holiday Homework: Show what You Know about Othello (so far)

Apologies for the delay in this holiday homework posting.

Your task is to produce an essay in response to the following question:

‘The key to understanding the characters in Othello is in their use of language.’  Discuss

You should write a short 500 word essay examining two or more characters in the text.  You should draw on evidence from the play (you will gather and use quotations) and provide succinct analysis of what the evidence suggests about the nature of the the characters you have chosen to focus on.  Your essay should have an introduction (remember that this is an introduction to your argument rather than to the play – assume your readers are familiar with the play but without insight into the characters, themes or structure of the play).


Before you begin, step into the role of an English teacher for the moment (even if that means wearing a tie with a short-sleeved shirt).  Their job is to assess what insights students have into the nature of the characters and themes and authorial intention from their reading of the text and its subtext (what the language suggests – the reading-between-the-lines stuff). If a student doesn’t put in their best effort then any critical feedback the teacher might give is rendered redundant.  You best effort should be trying to answer the question as best you can by showing what you know about the text.


Write out your question:

‘The key to understanding the characters in Othello is in their use of language.’  Discuss

You will need provide your **ultimate answer** to the question for your reader in your introduction – this is your main contention AKA thesis statement AKA main argument.  Whatever you call it, it means you will be planning:

  • Which characters you will focus on;
  • What you understand about those characters – their natures;
  • How their language reflects this – explain the way their language shows this.


An introduction leaves nothing to the imagination.  It is the absolute best answer to the question.  Essays are not ‘whodunnits’ where you deliberately withhold information to leave the reader wondering right until the end.  Essays deliver their ‘sucker punch’ – the knockout -know-it-all blow in the first round (the introduction/main contention) and what follows in the body paragraphs is a relentless pummeling (to carry the boxing analogy through) of your reader with evidence and analysis which supports your main contention that you delivered in the essay’s introduction.



These are the body blows that your will rain down on your reader. Remember that the rest of your essay will be an exposition of your main contention and its supporting arguments.  In the case of this question, you will take each character you choose to focus on and make some statements about their natures – the kind of characters they are.  You will then go on to show how these traits or characteristics are reflected in the way they use language.  You will need a range of examples (moments in the text) to show that you are familiar with how Shakespeare uses language to establish these characteristics for the audience.  You will need to use topic sentences which reflect your main contention and go some way to proving your main contention.  Remember to give a little context before quoting your supporting evidence so that you are not trying to begin your sentences with someone else’s words and so that you provide a context to understand who is speaking to whom and/or when in the play’s action this occurs.

Consider the beginning of this body paragraph:

Many characters use language to suggest many different things about themselves.   “I am not what I am,” is an instance when Iago is living up to his ‘honest Iago’ reputation.  This is Iago saying that he is not what he seems to be.  He is telling the truth.

Firstly, the topic sentence is too general and wish-washy. There’s no power of understanding or insight here.   It is the equivalent of someone asking you what kind of pizza you are eating and you answering: ” Many different pizza makers use many different pizza toppings to make their pizzas.”  We should be expressing our ideas with exactness.  We should be making sure that we are adding to the reader’s understanding, not yammering their questions back at them with no substance or insight being passed on.  “You can tell this is a Margarita pizza on account of the tomato, oregano and cheese topping  There is an absence of meat which suggests…” etc etc.  You get the point.

Consider, too, this student’s use of a quotation at the start of his sentence, which is disorientating for the essay’s reader (up to this point it was the essay’s author communicating with them so who is rudely interrupting that discourse suddenly?).  You should also notice that this student appears to be ‘translating’ the quotation (as if it was in another language;  news flash: Shakespeare is writing in Early Modern English) by restating it after the quotation.  There is no point in doing this either.  An analytical essay is not a test of your summarising, retelling or translating skills.  The analysis that follows in this student’s example is limited and the ideas lack cohesion.  This student is struggling to pack a punch.

Now consider this version:

Shakespeare has Iago use language selectively to tell truths about his motives, the significance of which is only revealed to the audience.  This distances the audience from the other characters who are ignorant of his evil and brings them closer to Iago.  When Iago tells Roderigo in the play’s opening scene, “I am not what I am,” he is actually living up to his ‘honest Iago’ reputation and the dramatic irony of this comment allows the audience the privilege of being alert to his ways.  This comment allows viewers to share in the secret of his evil machinations and the deception he is undertaking of which Roderigo and, more significantly, Othello know nothing.  It underscores the double meanings of Iago’s language and how well he can use language to control what he reveals to other characters and the impressions they get of him.  In this exchange he reveals to Roderigo…

Look at the way the topic sentence (in this case, it is actually spread across two sentences) demonstrates an understanding, insight and interpretation of the text.  It offers up an idea of substance for the readers of the essay to consider before launching into the discussion of particular instances in the play.

Notice how ‘reader friendly’ the beginning of the sentence containing evidence  is but providing just enough information to situate the reader in the student’s selected moment in the text before launching into the quotation.  And as the paragraph progresses you can see that they will be using more evidence to build their case (a body paragraph can rarely hang on one tiny piece of evidence; one tiny instance in time alone)

You should also have noticed how the second student builds on the initial idea and begins to provide more insight into why and how Iago is being honest in his language and the dramatic effect of this.  This student is not just tell their reader what there is to know about Iago but how one comes to know it.  This is the key to effective essay writing: being able to show not just what you know but to show how and why you know it.


Now that you have considered the scope of the task.  Go back to the text and use it to build your case for understanding the characters in the play.

Time to get into the ring for round one.