Puns in Othello

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Many people assume Shakespeare's plays must be classy because they are old and people say things like 'doth' and 'wast'. Not so. Shakespeare is full of jokes--many of them rude and crude. Let's take a look at some examples of puns from Othello.

Soooo Funny

What do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator! Ha! That's a pun--a joke that uses words that sound the same or similar but mean different things. Quite often, these are the sort of jokes that make you roll your eyes while you laugh.

Shakespeare's works are full of puns, and his play, Othello is no exception. His goal is more than just amusement, however. Often, Shakespeare's jokes help to further the plot of the play or get the audience to think about something in a new way.

Racial Slurs

Sadly, Shakespeare was not above making racial jokes. Othello, is about a 'Moor', and has many instances of racial epithets. The term Moor was initially used to indicate people of Arab descent, but was later also applied to black Africans. There is some dispute about whether the character Othello is meant to be Arabic or black, but it is certain that he is not considered 'white.' Shakespeare's puns help to make that clear.

Iago, in describing Othello, refers to him as 'his Moorship' as a play on the phrase 'his worship,' which would often be applied to people in respected positions, like Othello. By playing with words thus, Iago draws the audience's attention to Othello's race and makes it an issue.

Iago furthers this point when he tells Brabantio of Desdemona's marriage to Othello: 'you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.' He is calling Othello a Barbary horse as this was a species native to North Africa, from whence many Moors came. He's also playing with the word 'Berber' which was applied to people from North Africa and also 'barbarian' which some white people would have used at the time to refer to any non-white person. This probably would have been funny in Shakespeare's time, but to us it is just rude!

Foolish? Or Foolish?

Later, in talking with Desdemona, Iago makes a play on the word 'foolish'. We are used to this word meaning silly or not very sensible, but in Shakespeare's time it could also mean unchaste. Given the plans Iago has in the works to make it look like Desdemona is cheating on Othello, this particular pun holds extra meaning for the audience: 'She never yet was foolish that was fair, for even her folly helped her to an heir.' To say 'helped her to an heir' means 'got her pregnant.' Iago is twisting meanings here, bringing an innocent discussion around to the topic of sex.

Fart Jokes

Apparently people laughed at fart jokes even in Shakespeare's time. In Act 3 of Othello, the Clown happens upon some musicians playing outside Othello and Desdemona's bedroom window. He seems not to like their music and has some rude things to say about it, including, 'Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?' The musicians answer in the affirmative, at which the Clown says 'O, thereby hangs a tail.' Now, what wind instrument can you think of that has a tail nearby? A rectum. The Clown is saying the music sounds like flatulence.

The musicians hear the word 'tail' and think he means 'tale', asking 'Whereby hangs a tale, sir? thinking perhaps he means to tell them a story. This, of course, is amusing for us as the audience, but it also serves to draw our attention to the manner in which words can be misconstrued and misunderstood, which is an essential part of Iago's plan to ruin Othello with jealousy.

Lies and lying

The Clown once again helps us pay attention to the use of words when he has an amusing conversation with Desdemona in Scene 4 of Act 3. Desdemona asks the Clown, 'Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?' She means 'where does he sleep', but the Clown picks up on the other use of the word 'lie,' meaning to tell an untruth. Desdemona gets confused and we are treated to some amusing banter, but we are also given an important clue to Iago's plan, as Othello makes a fatal mistake with this very same word at the beginning of Act 4.

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