As required by the curriculum in my school, I lead the class in a reading of Othello, the Shakespearean play that deals with racial issues, sex, betrayal, and of course jealousy. In my approach to Othello, I do not hold back in recognizing and discussing these themes in class. Many of my lessons openly include racial issues, sexual references, etc. Because of the student demographics and a general liberal approach to literature, my colleagues and I do not whitewash any of the universal and sometimes adult issues in this play.
I like to begin the unit by addressing the usual complaints brought by students in reading Shakespeare. While they do struggle with the language, I try to point out that Shakespeare was trying to elevate the English language to the same levels as Greek and Latin. Shakespeare wanted his plays to be considered in the same categories as epic poetry such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid.
To generate interest and to allay the usual groans that commence once we start reading Shakespeare's Othello, I want students to understand the reasoning why Shakespeare is still incorporated in English curricula some 400 years after his death. What makes this unit Common Core aligned is the fact that students will have to negotiate some dense language and decode Shakespeare's blank verse. Essentially, if they can read Othello, they will be able to read anything.
The first thing that I do in beginning this unit is to play the attached video. Using this medium gets students' attentions and answers their most common questions. I also use the opportunity to begin a discussion on why we still read Shakespeare and whether students agree with the video's contentions as to why we still do.
While the video is playing, students will write down four reasons we still read Shakespeare as explained in the video. They will then respond in a reflection as to whether they believe these reasons make sense and whether they agree with them. I will pull popsicle sticks to generate a discussion.
I am looking for students to identify that Shakespeare was a significant contributor to the English language, and he is to the English language what Virgil is to Latin or Homer is to Greek. Shakespeare set out to elevate the English language to the levels that Latin and Greek enjoyed during the Elizabethan time period. England was the most powerful nation during this time, but its language was secondary.
To entice students and generate some interest, I project on the screen names of various celebrities, and I ask students to identify the commonality that all the names have in common. Some of the individuals may need explanation. For example, many students are not familiar with Claus Von Bulow, the Newport socialite accused and acquitted of sending his wife into a diabetic coma in the 1980s. Jean Harris also needs explanation. (She dated the founder of the Scarsdale Diet). All the individuals have been victims or involved in a crime of passion. These names are familiar to me; however, there are a slew of names in the news lately that may be substituted. Students usually recognize that all the individuals were involved in a crime; however, they are unclear if the individual is the victim or perpetrator of the crime. Once they identify the nature of the crimes, it does take a bit of prompting for them to realize that these crimes are all crimes of passion.
Once we get on the subject of a crime of passion, I project another slide that explains its legal definition. I want students to understand the concept of how an individual who loves another can actually murder them. The emotional attachment can lead one lover to murder the other especially if infidelity is involved. This idea of course is the essential premise of the play Othello. In order to understand Othello's motivation, they need to understand the emotional attachment between a husband and wife and how that attachment can make one vulnerable. This vulnerability leads Othello to get caught in a host of lies and misconceptions which ends in him murdering his wife.
I proceed to go through the remainder of the PowerPoint to establish the setting, explain the geography of the play, and define literary techniques. Students will take notes and use these notes to assist them in understanding the play. Students will need to be able to identify the characteristics of a Moor. A Moor is an ethnic group originating in northern Africa. They are Muslim and have dark complexions. The area which is now Egypt is believed to be where the Moors originated. This knowledge of the Moors is necessary for students to grasp the racial references made in the play. Additionally, the information on the setting helps students visualize the geography of the play.
Students should be quite familiar with blank verse and iambic pentameter since they were included in the previous poetry unit.
As we begin reading the play, I stress that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed. In actuality, he did not sit down and write his plays before they were performed; in fact, they were written as they were performed. To reinforce this idea, I play the following clip from the video "Why We Read Shakespeare?" In this clip, the actor William Shatner explains Shakespeare's brilliance and the beauty behind his language. Students should be aware that Shakespeare was attempting to tell a story in an extremely prescribed rhythmic pattern. That rhythmic pattern, of course, was blank verse/iambic pentameter. There are probably no two terms that strike the amount of fear and anxiety than these two poetic devices. I like to allay their fears by demonstrating that blank verse and iambic pentameter are as harmless as a heartbeat. The rhythm mimics an EKG. Once we understand this, we can move words around and manipulate the language to gain understanding. It does take students a few scenes for them to get accustomed to the language. The protocol I use is to read a few lines and then pick out key words or phrases and throw it out to the class to gauge their interpretation. For example, in the first scene, Roderigo says, "Who hast had my purse/As if the strings were thine." I pick out key words "purse" and "thine." I ask students, "What do we keep in a purse?" They almost always answer "money." Then, we look at the word "thine" which means "yours." I ask, "What does it mean to treat someone's money as your own?" They then realize that Iago is manipulating Roderigo.
We read the entire play aloud. In this first Act, I emphasize the abundance of racial stereotypes and slurs. As I said previously, I openly discuss the racial issues. Shakespeare's vehicle to present these issues is through animal imagery. I do stop during the first few scenes to discuss the animal imagery. Again, some of it needs to be handled delicately. For example, I ask students, "What does it mean to 'plague him with flies'?" "How would you describe a groups of flies in your face while you are sleeping?" Students immediately understand that Iago and Roderigo are attempting to annoy Brabantio. At the end of Acts I and II, we take a close look at Iago's soliloquy. I have students paraphrase these soliloquies because understanding them sets up the plot elements for the remainder of the play.
Following the clip, I assign roles to the students using popsicle sticks. I also list the roles of the day on a whiteboard. As students arrive, they may volunteer for roles. Otherwise, I use the popsicle sticks.
For homework, students will find examples of cultural assumptions that unfairly characterize Othello. This will be the basis of class discussion before we complete Act I.