Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Shakespeare's Othello provides a variety of ideas and activities to serve as a springboard to enrich student learning. Intense feelings are exhibited in this play -- love, hate, jealousy, envy, even lust -- which makes it a perfect choice for mature students.
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Teaching Strategies:
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Shakespeare's Othello

This guide combines literary, dramatic, and cultural approaches to the teaching of Othello. The suggested activities engage students with the language and formal elements of the play: plot, character, setting, and theme. They also help bring the play to life for students by involving them in its dramatic action. In addition, they assist students in understanding the cultural and social context of the play. An array of ideas for visualizing, acting out, reading aloud, and reinterpreting the roles are included. An effort has been made, too, to keep students involved in thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking about various aspects of the play. Students become a part of the Venetian scene and compare the world of Othello to their own contemporary world. Finally, the activities show how teachers in subjects other than the language arts can address the play in their classrooms. Materials included in the bibliography provide a wealth of teaching ideas to supplement those in this guide. They also direct teachers to other literature that can be used in thematic units.

Understanding the Cultural Context

These activities are designed for the language arts classroom, but can be equally effective in social studies. They help students understand the cultural and social context of the play.

1. In order for students to understand the subtleties of the play, they should understand something about the culture about which it was written and in which it was produced. Pair or divide students into groups of three to do mini-research projects, primarily from encyclopedias and specialized reference texts. A quick turn around time, 24 to 48 hours, will keep students from bogging down in this preliminary activity and allow them to focus on the play itself. Students can report orally on the material they gather. The topics should all originate from the play. More than one group can tackle the same topic:

• Who were the Moors?

• Who were the Venetians?

• How were the Moors/Venetians regarded in Shakespeare's day?

• What were the military duties of ranked officers?

• What was the military hierarchy?

• What was the role of women?

• What was expected of a daughter?

• What was expected of a bride?

• What relationships between men and women were considered above reproach?

• What rules for getting married existed at the time of the play?

• What were the rules of courtship?

2. Have students examine cultural rules by which they live and compare and contrast these rules to the ones of Othello's time. Have them think and/or write about the following topics before discussing them:

• What rules dictate the behavior of young men and women in relationships today?

• Name a situation in which the rules have clearly been violated. That is, what are things "nice girls" just don't do? What are things "nice boys" just don't do?

• Why do these rules exist? Do you think they just apply locally or even just in your school? What are the possible consequences of breaking these rules?

3. Divide students into groups to brainstorm situations in which cultural rules were unclear or were very different from what they expected. Each group should come up with one or two situations and list:

• the actual rule,

• the rule as interpreted incorrectly, and

• where help could be found.

4. Show one scene from the Lawrence Fishburne video of the play (perhaps the scene where Othello strikes Desdemona). Have students analyze:

• the rule that seems to be operating or

• the rule that seems to have been broken.

Have them compare what they have observed in the video with incidents they have observed in real life.

Decoding the Language

One of the difficulties some students have in reading Shakespeare is trying to decode the language. The suggestions included here and later in the section of ideas to use during the reading of the play are intended to help students check their understanding of what is being said and better appreciate how it is being said.

1. Select or have students select scenes from the play and perform them using their own language. Limit the time for the performance to 2-3 minutes.

2. Select for the students an important scene from the play. Have them rewrite the scene as if a similar incident is occurring today. Contemporary interpretations of scenes should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They should be clearly focused on demonstrating one important incident from the play. For example:

• Friend A and Friend B enter a public place where Friend A is to meet his girlfriend. As they enter, she is laughing and talking with Friend C. Friend B begins to call attention to them; he suggests that Friend C is trying to take away Friend A's girl.

• Friend A and Friend C have been good friends but have quarreled. Friend A, who was in the wrong, tries to get the girlfriend or boyfriend of Friend C to make peace between them.

Students should perform the scene for the class.

3. Have students write a brief monologue about themselves or someone they know well, telling one important thing about who he/she is and one thing about what he/she wants (e.g., to be a starter for the basketball team, to get a car, to attend a special school for math or science, to win the lottery). The monologues can be recorded on audio or video tape, and selected monologues can be performed for the class.

4. Have students watch the scene in a video (i.e., the 1989 BBC/Time Life production, the Lawrence Fishburne/Kenneth Branaugh, or the Orson Welles version) where Othello asks Desdemona about the handkerchief. Ask each student, pair, or group to focus on one of the characters. Have them analyze what that character wants most in the scene. Tell them that as they read the play they should think about how the character's desire in the scene they watched compares or contrasts with what he/she wants in the rest of the play.

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