Othello

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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AFTER READING THE PLAY
Shakespeare's Othello

After the class has finished reading the play, direct the students to one or more of the following activities. They are designed to check students' understanding of the basic elements of plot and character. In addition, suggestions are made to assist more advanced students in learning about literary criticism and becoming literary critics.

Plot

1. To begin to understand something about the way the play works, have students examine its overall structure. Divide the class into groups, assigning one act per group. Have each group look closely at the structure of the assigned act. At the end of this exercise, piece together on chart paper or the chalk board what each act contributes to the structure of the play and to the audience's interpretation. To help students in this process, have them discuss and attempt to answer the following questions:

• What is the major event that occurs in this act?

• What information is provided in this act?

• What new information do we learn about each of the characters in this act?

• How do we learn this? From whom?

• What do the character's monologues/speeches tell us about him/her?

• What does the manner in which they speak and to whom tell us?

• What seems to be the focus and major function of the act?

• How else might Shakespeare have accomplished this? What would be the effect, for instance, of beginning with the wooing of Desdemona? What if there had been an opening scene with Roderigo being turned away by Desdemona?

2. Have the class compare notes on the overall structure of the play. As a class, small group, or individually in their dialogue journals, students can discuss and attempt to answer these questions:

• How does the beginning of the act "match" the closing? Have them, for example, compare Othello's closing speech with the opening speech he makes to the senators. How do Iago's final actions compare with his beginning ones?

• What about setting? What is the setting (both time and place) of the opening act? What is the setting at the end of the closing act? How do these compare?

3. Have students individually create a visual version of the essential story (e.g., sketches, collage, paintings). Ask them to present this to the class. Have them put their art work together to create a story board for a new series of classical cartoons of Shakespearean plays.

4. If students have computer skills, they can idrawi elements of the essential parts of the story on the computer and animate them using a software program with this capability. If the school has the equipment, students can present these computer animations to the class or can print them and post them on a bulletin board.

5. Students should change the ending to the play. Have them make it end as a classical comedy where the "good guys" and the "bad guys" get their just rewards. Tell the students to respond to this question: What other aspects of the play will have to be changed to make a happy ending believable?

6. Ask students to create a reduced script for telling the tale. If they had to find a way to tell the story on stage in thirty minutes, what would they edit, rearrange, or add?

7. Have students rewrite the play as a contemporary soap opera, perhaps through a week of episodes. After the script has been drafted, they might perform and videotape it. The videotape can be shown to the class or placed in a classroom videotape checkout library.

Character

1. Have students select a speech that expresses an important personality trait of the character. Have them memorize it or rehearse it so that it can be read flawlessly and presented to the class. They should be prepared to write and/or discuss what it reveals about the character and why.

2. Have students design, either by hand or on the computer, costumes for each of the characters. The costumes should reveal knowledge of the historical period and analysis of the personality of the character. These "sketches" can be presented to the class or posted.

3. Have students chart Othello's changes from the beginning to the end of the play. They can place a chart of these changes in the dialogue journals, create a chart to display on a single sheet of chart paper, develop a time line of these changes, or create a sketched or computer generated story board of these changes. However students display these changes, they must document the scenes that reveal them.

4. As a class, examine how Iago's plans work. Identify the devices or strategies he uses in each scene with Roderigo. These plans can also be documented creatively as in number three above.

5. Have students identify villains they know from television, videos, movies, or contemporary novels. Have them answer this question: What are some of the common characteristics of these villains?

6. Have students choose a key speech of one of the major characters. Have them develop two different ways of presenting the speech based on different interpretations of the play. After students present these to the class, have the class discuss which interpretations seemed most effective and why.

Literary Criticism

1. Have students individually, in pairs, or in groups, locate different critical sources about the play. After they have read these, have the class pool resources about the varied approaches critics have taken to the play over time. (For example, have them note the concern in the 19th century that Othello not be played as an African but rather as an Arab).

2. Have students read one critical study of Othello, in addition to those in the Signet Classic edition. (Maynard Mack's essay on Othello in Everybody's Shakespeare is an excellent choice.) In small groups, the students should talk about the critic's approach and how reading the essay affects their thinking about the play. In their dialogue journals, students can write about what they learned from reading the essay or what surprised them in this critic's response to the play. Students might also use the critical essay as a model for one they write on some aspect of the play.


EXTENDED LEARNING

Following are suggestions for ways to connect the literary study of the play with other disciplines and to help students see elements of the play through different lenses. Some of these suggestions ask the students to go beyond the text. All of them are intended to extend the students' consideration of the various concepts the play presents.

The Arts

1. After reading the play and seeing a video version of the stage play (i.e., The BBC and Time/Life 1989 version is especially useful here because the aim of the producers was to recreate as "authentic" a production as possible) or, if possible, a live production, have students view parts of a film version of it (i.e., the Lawrence Fishburne/Kenneth Branagh 1995 version is good; likewise the Orson Welles black-and-white version is useful). Discuss with the students differences between stage versions and film. They can respond to these questions:

• What can a movie do that is not possible on the stage?

• What can you experience in a live performance that is not possible in a film? (Do not let students forget that in a live performance, seeing and responding to the actors provides a kind of community reaction and interaction with the actors that is not possible in watching films).

2. Choose at least two video versions of Othello and contrast how the directors staged the opening and closing scenes or other pivotal scenes. (E.g., The BBC and Time/Life production of 1989 begins with Roderigo and Iago making their way to Brabantio's house, preparing to rouse him. The Lawrence Fishburne/Kenneth Branagh version begins, on the other hand, with night shots of the Venetian canals and a montage that includes scenes from the elopement. (Oliver Parker's screenplay is available on the Internet.) The earlier Orson Welles film begins with the funeral procession of Desdemona and Othello. Iago appears in an iron cage. Ask:

• Why did each director make his choices?

• What were they emphasizing?

• What was gained or lost?

3. Actors use objects (props) to help communicate aspects of their characters to the audience. Students can select an object they believe reveals something about a character they select.

4. Allow students to choose a piece of music that could be used effectively in staging one of the scenes. They should explain (orally or in writing) why the music is appropriate.

Language Arts

1. Divide students into pairs or small groups. Have them jot down names of three stories they have read, seen on television, in the movies, or on the stage that focus on one of the major themes of the play (i.e., jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, domestic violence, peer pressure). Have them share their lists. As they share invite them to make connections between their reading of Othello and their experience with the treatment of these themes in other plots.

2. Encourage students to search local newspapers for stories with one of the themes. Have them bring the story to class and compare/contrast the news or feature story with the play. Have students write a scene depicting something reported in the news story.

3. Have students write a news or feature story about the play or an article about a specific incident in the play. Creating a class newspaper, "published" in Venice at the time of Othello, is an interesting activity that can serve as a good organizing technique for teaching the play.

4. Have students write Lodovico's letter to the Venetian governors explaining what he found in Cyprus.

5. Students can write a letter from Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, or Roderigo to Dear Abby or some other advice columnist. Another student should write a reply from the columnist.

6. Have students stage an episode of a daytime talk show on which Iago confronts Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Roderigo, and Emilia. Who appears and in which order? What is the headline for that day's show? What questions does the host ask? What questions do members of the audience ask?

Language Arts and Social Studies

1. Have students research an "evil" character in history or literature. They can search history texts or literature anthologies to find other characters like Iago who caused destruction. Encourage students to explore that character's motives. Have them compare the researched character with Iago.

2. Students can stage Iago's trial. They should be careful to determine the specific charges against him. Remind them to include a defense, a prosecution, a judge, and a jury. Remind them also to pay attention to what the play itself says.

3. Suggest to the students: Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are in a women's workshop on assertiveness training. They are learning the difference between assertion and aggression. Tell the students to create the scene using incidents from the play to illustrate important points.

4. Have students create this scenario: You have been called in to do conflict resolution between Iago and Othello. Ask: What are the issues between them by the end of the play? How can they be resolved? How could they have been resolved at an earlier point in the play? When?

5. The play raises issues about interracial marriage and relationships. Have students investigate American laws on miscegenation. Did these laws exist in their home state? If so, when and how long ago were these laws set aside? What was the legal justification of these laws? Students might compare that reasoning to the legal discussions about same-sex marriages today. Have them set up a mock court with a prosecution, a defense, a judge, and a jury to debate these issues and render a judgment.

Social Studies

1. Have students create this scenario: Brabantio and Desdemona attend family counseling in order to reconcile. Ask:

• What does Desdemona need to do in order to help her father understand?

• What does Brabantio need to say to his daughter?

• What advice would the counselor give?

2. Have students research historical or contemporary courtship customs in different parts of the world. They can present findings to the class.

3. Have students answer this question: How have courtship and marriage customs changed in the United States? Students should interview someone from their parents' generation and someone from their grandparents' generation and compare what they say to what contemporary young people think. For example, students can ask:

• At what age could young people begin dating?

• Where was it usual to take a date? At what age did young people get married?

• Students can report their findings to the class.


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