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"Words, words, words"

Teachers' Rating:
  16 ratings

The Dexter Portrait of Shakespeare. Oil on panel, 19th century

January 2000
Tom Fitzgerald, Ranum High School, Westminster, Colorado.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Othello, can be adapted to many other Shakespeare plays 
What's On for Today and Why

The students will discuss words that represent the "big ideas" in Othello and that recur throughout the play. They will be assigned words to track throughout the text, recording which character says the word and in what context. (See handout below for a list of these words.)


Students will also look up the meanings of their assigned words using resources like the Oxford English Dictionary and The Early Modern English Dictionaries Database Website edited and maintained by Ian Lancashire at the University of Toronto (see below). The EMEDD is a database of several dictionaries from Shakespeare's time.


A student who successfully completes this assignment will become aware of the role of diction and voice in character development. Additionally students will understand that a word's meaning may change through context and over time, and these changes and other associative meanings affect our interpretations and understandings of the text.


This assignment will take three weeks: two for recording the development of the words in the context of the play, one to write the essay.

What You Need

Folger edition of Othello
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts


The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary


Student access to computers with Internet capability  



Please note: Teachers who wish to use EMEDD for instructional purposes are encouraged to register freely for access and then to make their own login and password available to their students. Individual student access, however, is not possible to give.

Frequency Handout
What To Do

1. Introduce this project as you begin reading Othello. You should discuss the idea that writers make choices in their diction (especially in poetry) to help develop their ideas. Discuss connotation and denotation.


2. Post the list of words from the teacher handout on the board, on an overhead display, or on butcher paper. Tell students that they are to trace their assigned word(s) throughout the play.


3. Ask students to search the OED and the EMEDD for the meanings of their words during the late 1500s and early 1600s. They should print out or copy the most common definition and two or three of the most "unexpected" definitions.


4. Next, instruct the students to start a journal. The definitions and their sources should be the first page of the journal. For each appearance of the word (they should collect a minimum of eight), students should cite the location of the word, the context of the word, and the speaker. They should also include a short one or two sentence paraphrase/analysis of what the character is saying.


5. Once the journal is completed, students should begin to make conclusions about their words and their uses. For instance, who uses the word most often? How does the connotation of the word change depending on character, act and/or scene? Which of the definitions from the OED and the EMEDD fits the context(s) best? Are there other meanings assigned to the word in the late 15th early 16th centuries that affect the tone of a scene, an act, or the play as a whole? How do the alternative meanings make sense with the rest of the play?


6. Ask students to write an essay discussing the variety of meanings of the word, citing the OED and the EMEDD. They should determine whether the word remains relatively static or changes during the course of the play. Students should also deal with how the word helps to define a character or points to a similarity or difference among characters.

How Did It Go?

You should take the opportunity throughout the unit to check and comment upon journal entries. The activity should lead to "closer" readings and give rise to questions and discussions about words, language, and meaning as well as character, theme, and plot. Ask a couple of students to report on their word trace for three minutes at the beginning of each class over the two-week period. Tell students they will be called on for their reports randomly.


The students' essays should reveal the extent of their understanding of how language choices and shades of meaning affect their understanding of the play.


If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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  Common Core State Standards

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