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Shakespeare's Language: Othello

Many students—and adults, for that matter—find Shakespeare difficult to read and hard to understand. They accuse him of not speaking English and refuse to believe that ordinary people spoke the way his characters do. However, if you understand more about his language, it is easier to understand. One idea that may help is to remember that his plays are written in two forms: prose and verse. In Othello prose is less common than verse. 


Prose is the form of speech used by common, and often comic, people in Shakespearean drama. There is no rhythm or meter in the line. It is everyday language. Shakespeare’s audiences would recognize the speech as their language. Normally, when a character in a play speaks in prose, you know that he is a lower class member of society. These are characters such as criminals, servants, and pages. However, some times important characters can speak in prose. For example, the majority of The Merry Wives of Windsor is written in prose because it deals with the middle-class. In Othello Iago makes remarkable use of prose and verse as he manipulates those around him. Whether wishing to be seen as a respectable advisor, humble servant, or a common solider Iago is a master chameleon of speech. His snakelike sliding in and out of speech patterns mirrors his ability to camouflage his nature to best suit his purpose.  

At the close of Act 1 Iago uses prose to convince Rodrigo not to kill himself. Instead he tells Rodrigo to use all his money to win Desdemona from Othello and Cassio. By speaking in prose he sounds frank and open and his plan simple. Later he tells the audience of his true plans. With his seamless transition into elegant verse, ending with subtle rhymes, we can feel and hear his clever and devious nature through his words. 


Iago: Thou art sure of me: — go, make money: — I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted; thine hath no less reason. Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him: if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered. Traverse! go, provide thy money. We will have more of this to-morrow. Adieu. Go to; farewell. Do you hear, Roderigo?

Roderigo: What say you?

Iago: No more of drowning, do you hear?

Roderigo: I am chang’d.


Iago: Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe.
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery — How, how? Let’s see: —
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

                — 1.2.364–404


Later after having sorted out his whole plan to destroy Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio’s lives Iago once again revels in his wickedness to the audience in verse:

When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
        — 2.3.351–62


Here Iago speaks in blank verse. Blank verse contains no rhyme, but each line has an internal rhythm with a regular rhythmic pattern. The pattern most favored by Shakespeare is iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is defined as a ten-syllable line with the accent on the every other syllable, beginning with the second one. The rhythm of this pattern of speech is often compared to a beating heart. Examine one of the lines from the above speech and count the syllables it contains. For example:

So will I turn her virtue into pitch.

First replace the words with syllabic count:    

1-2  3-4      5-6    7-8       9-10 

Next, replace the word with a ‘da’ sound to hear the heart beat:

    da-DA   da-DA   da-DA   da-DA da-DA

Finally, put the emphasis on the words themselves:

    so-WILL i-TURN her-VIR tue-IN to-PITCH


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The Winter's Tale

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