About carrollamanda

I teach English at a select-entry government school in Melbourne, Australia.

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.


Othello Presentations


Step up, scholars!  Here is your chance to teach your peers a section of Othello.  In pairs, you will need to read the whole scene and study your section in detail together to create a Googleslide presentation (collaborative work) – this will be set for homework over the weekend and you will have Monday’s lesson to double-check and refine your material.  In each class we will read a section of the text following which you will deliver a short concise analysis of the significance of the language used, the characters and their relationships and the themes developed in the text.  Examine the suggested text-related activities on the left hand side of your text book to help stimulate your analytical thinking.

Each presentation will be 10- 15 minutes long, based around several key points of enquiry which you and your partner decide upon (these questions will form the headings of your slides) and require the following format:

  1. STRUCTURE – outline the main plot elements; use of dramatic irony; foreshadowing, entrances and exits; dramatic devices.                                                              (1 slide)
  2. CHARACTERS – what we learn about the characters’ views and values and their relationships; diagrams may be helpful                                                           (up to 4 slides)
  3. THEMES – big ideas explored or developed in the scene                             (up to 4 slides)
  4. IMAGERY AND LANGUAGE – a slide on which there is a visual related to Shakespeare’s choice of language in the text. This can be used to stimulate the class to find the relevant quotation from the text                                                                                                                                                                                                                                (min 1 slide)

Every slide will contain at least one key quotation which is essential to understanding the nature of the scene.  Every slide will contain a key question as its heading.

You will be expected to answer questions from the class regarding any aspect of the text studied.

Maximum slides: 10

Presentations begin: Tuesday 7 March


ACT 2, Scene 1 Himasha and Pedro

ACT 2, Scene 3  Nathan and Zac

ACT 3, Scene 3 (Part 1, lines 0–259) Alex and Daniel X

ACT 3, Scene 3 (Part 2 lines270-end) Bernard and Lorenzo

ACT 3, Scene 4  Taha and Josh

Act 4, Scene 1   Part 1 (lines 1-161 Cassio’s exit) Memphis and Raph

Act 4, Scene 1 Part 2 (lines 162 – end) Finn and Corey

Act 4, Scene 2 (lines 1- 170 Desdemona and Emilia’s exit) [Ms Carroll to finish the scene. Daniel and Julian

Act 4, Scene 3 Stefan and Tim

Act 5, Scene 1  Oscar and Jeremy

Act 5, Scene 2 (Part 1 1- 234 the stabbing of Emilia) Cheuk and Raymond

Act 5, Scene 2 (part 2, 235-end) Noah and Billie

Othello as a Tragedy: examine the structure of tragedy and how the play presents Othello as a tragic hero. Harvey and Sriram

Critical Perspectives on Othello: examine the ways in which Othello may be interpreted by using two contrasting critical perspectives (your choice) from the list provided on page 222 of your texts.  Pick at least two scenes or dramatic moments from Othello and explain how they can be interpreted I a way that supports your selective reading. Andrew and Hao

How far have we come? Portrayals of race in on screen.

Watch this excerpt from the film Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington, which shows a young Malcolm X being schooled in the meaning of black and white:

Here is South African comedian Trevor Noah, now presenter of The Daily Show, speaking about black and white matters…

Take your time to read through the information presented on the Venngage article: 6 Facts That Prove that The Oscars is More Racist Than You Think.

Read ‘How To Fix Hollywood’s Race Problem’ by Nadia and Leila Latif which gives an historical context to our understanding of the #HollywoodSoWhite hashtag.

Here is Aziz Ansari dealing with the notion of stereotypes:

Watch Aziz Ansari’s portrayal of Dev Shah in episode 4: Indians on TV from his ‘Master of None’ comedy series on Netflix.

Stereotypes and sexist language in Othello



Elizabethan and Jacobean society was patriarchal. Men were seen as superior in every way and had power and authority over women.  Fathers were seen as the heads of the house and decided when and to whom their daughters would marry.  They demanded total respect from wives and children.  They had legal control over their wife and her property.

Women were expected to be subservient.  Their virginity and chastity was prized and seen as essential to avoid disputes over inheritance.  A common stereotype was that women were naturally promiscuous and men feared that their wives would stray.  Without chastity a woman was seen as worthless.  A man could be mocked by society for being a ‘cuckhold’ if his wife had been unfaithful.

Women were seen to be create by God for two reasons: marriage and childbearing.  That said, there was an emphasis placed on the idea of women being seen as goddesses to be worshipped and adored and it was fashionable for young men to court women through the writing of love poems and the sending of gifts.

Other common stereotypes included the idea that women talk too much and that those who showed intelligence and independence were ‘curst’ and a burden on their fathers and husbands.



IAGO: “Nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster…” (1.1.23-4)

OTHELLO: “Let housewives make a skillet of my helm…” (1.3.268)

IAGO: ” Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.” (1.3.309-10)


Machiavellian Machinations


In Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) we can read about the political manoeuvring that is often defined as ‘Machiavellian’ – where the taking of political scalps (“the killing of innocents”) and dishonest and unscrupulous dealings are detailed as a necessary means to an end.

Iago is often put forward as an excellent example of a Machiavellian villain.

Othello: a political portrayal


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Although the play may not seem to be about politics, its presentation of Othello as black and older than Desdemona clearly raises crucial issues of race, age and culture.  In the 20th century the play proved a significant symbol in the struggle for black emancipation.  A long running American production in 1943 included the first ever kiss on stage between a black man and a white woman.  All later productions in America commented with varying directness on the Civil Rights movement for equality between races.


The 1987 production of Othello at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, with John Kani playing Othello and Joanna Weinberg as Desdemona.

Similarly, in South Africa, a famous production at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg became a potent focus for the anti-apartheid campaign.  Iago was portrayed as an intolerant Afrikaaner and Othello was played by a township black.  Today fierce debate rages as to whether only a black man should play Othello.  A 1999 production in Washington found a solution by casting a white actor as Othello and having every other character played by black actors.

(source: p. 51, Shakespearean and Jacobean Tragedy by Rex Gibson, 2000)

Take the time to look at how Othello has been cast over time here.