Pick and a Shovel: Digging Out Theme and Meaning in Shakespeare's and Language

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SWBAT cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text by delving into the text and searching for specific themes and concepts.

Big Idea

Decoding language to find Shakespeare's voice.


In this lesson, my aim is to get students acclimated to the language.  There are several exercises that force them to closely read the text.  Additionally, in this scene, the action becomes clear.  Brabantio is a father scorned by his daughter's marriage to someone he does not approve of.  This is something adolescents are quite familiar with:  a parent who does not approve of their choice of partner.  So they understand the entire setup of Othello defending his position and the father disowning his daughter.  To end the Act, students are assigned a treasure hunt where they have to closely examine the text to find answers.

Cultural Assumptions in Act I

15 minutes

For homework in the prior lessons, students were assigned to find unfair cultural assumptions that were cast against Othello once the other characters learn of his marriage to the white Desdemona.  My goal in this discussion is for students to consider whether the characters had this view of Othello before his marriage to Desdemona.  This exercise aligns well with the Reading and Literature Standard 11-12.1.  Students will need to find explicit text evidence to decode and analyze the characters' attitudes toward Othello before and after the marriage.  They will also need to make specific inferences especially since these indications are not obvious in the text.  They will consider whether Othello is a war hero.  Would Brabantio, Roderigo, and Iago make racial references to Othello if he did not marry a white woman?  I want to point out the hypocrisy and whether this type of situation could happen today.  This part of my inquiry is to lead students to consider the universality of Shakespeare's themes.  Several themes develop over the course of the play such as the hypocritical nature of the other characters' attitudes of Othello and the thin line between love and war.  This part of the exercise aligns with the Reading and Literature Standard 11-12.2.

Students usually pick up on the references to Othello's appearance such as "What does the thick lips ow?" and "An old black ram is tupping your white ewe." The fact that many of the racial undertones are told through metaphors, students must able to determine the meanings of words and phrases as they are used in the text in order to ascertain the connotative and figurative meanings. (RL 11-12.4) Othello's reaction to the accusations and the fact that he does not run and hide lead students to believe that Othello was revered by everyone in Venice before his marriage. 

Act I Vocabulary

20 minutes

In this section of my lesson, I give students a list of vocabulary words for Act I.  The list requires students to write the line in the scene where the word appears and for them to devise a definition based on context.  This part of the assignment aligns with the Language Standard 11-12.4.   Because we began the play the day before, I will give students a few moments to find the first few words that appear in scenes i and ii.  At the end of the Act, students will look up the words in the dictionary and compare them to their definition. 

Secondly, to further align this activity with the Common Core, I ask students to choose five words from the list and consult a specialized reference material to find the words' pronunciations and compare the meanings of the words in context to its precise dictionary definition.  Following the activity, students will pair up, and within the confines of a sentence, recite their five words to their partner using the correct pronunciation and context.  This portion of the assignment aligns with the Language Standard 11-12.4C.

Reading Othello, Act I, Scene iii

35 minutes

Again, we assign roles and students act out scene iii.  To demonstrate an authentic Shakespearean production and to review what was read from the prior lesson, I play a quick segment from scene i of a BBC production of Othello.  In this scene, Iago and Roderigo are "plaguing [Brabantio] with flies."

As we read, I ask students to take notice of Othello's reaction to the charges made against him.  As a valiant war hero, he acts no less in front of the Duke as he defends his marriage against Brabantio's charge of black magic.  I also ask students to pay attention to Desdemona's "divided duty" and to the odd relationship between Iago and Roderigo.  Following the Act, students will complete a treasure hunt in which they close read many portions of the Act, including a paraphrase of Iago's soliloquy at the end (RL 11-12.1).  I chose to assess students on the selected elements on the treasure hunt because I felt it was necessary for students to grasp these points before they would be able to move on.  For example, the diabolical plans of Iago are often revealed through light and dark imagery.  The cultural biases of the other characters toward Othello help unfold the major themes in the play.  Lastly, undertstanding that Shakespeare's sudden shift from blank verse to iambic pentameter means that a significant plot point is being revealed.

If students need more time to finish the treasure hunt, they should complete for homework.