Othello: The Handkerchief Poses a Smoking Gun

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SWBAT determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings by analyzing the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, through the characters' perceptions of the handkerchief's importance.

Big Idea

The hanky is more than swanky.


The overall crux of this lesson is to have students assess language to find tone.  In this case, students will recognize the characters' attitudes of the handkerchief.  The handkerchief is the smoking gun that Iago will use to "implicate" Desdemona, but it also has very specific meaning to many of the characters.  Students will look at the language each character uses in reference to the handkerchief and assess his or her attitude (tone) of the handkerchief's importance.

Act III-Act IV Vocabulary

20 minutes

In this section of my lesson, I give students a list of vocabulary words for Acts III and IV.  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.  Because we began the Act the day before, I will give students a few moments to find the first few words that appear in scenes i,ii, and iii.  At the end of the Act, students will look up the words in the dictionary and compare them to their definition. 

To faciliate the process, I will begin with a handout that has a few passages from Act III.  These passages contain vocabulary words from the text.  Students will begin by reading the passages and identifying the definitions of underlined words through context.  To reinforce the context definitions, students will keep track of the definitions on the appropriate handout.

Complete Reading of Act III, scene iv

30 minutes

As we begin scene iv, Shakespeare has once again imported a few lines of comic relief.  The "comedy" is found in the word "lies."  Desdemona is inquiring into Cassio's lodging, but the clown twists her use of the word "lie" to mean a fib.  Again, students do not find the humor in this pun, but I do take the opportunity to point out that Shakespeare is purposely beginning the scene in a light mood to offset the intensity of the previous scene.  As we read, we will follow the trail of the handkerchief.  Desdemona has lost it to the hands of her supposed friend Emilia who has stolen it to please Iago, her husband.  We then find Othello questioning Desdemona of its whereabout and we can sense the panic as she tries to change the subject.  The handerchief is an especially important prop in the play as it becomes the "smoking gun" that Iago will use to implicate Cassio. 

Inferring Tone: The Handkerchief

20 minutes

The handkerchief is a significant plot element in Othello.  It is also a great opportunity to instruct students on how to infer tone from word choice.  Each of the characters has a specific attitude toward the handerkerchief.  In this assignment, we will look at word choice and assess exactly what the tone is through the eyes of the character.  For example, Desdemona says she would rather lose all her money (crusadoes) rather than lose the handkerchief.  Clearly, the handkerchief has a great sentimental value to her.  Othello's story behind the magic in the handkerchief provides some foreshadowing that something evil is going to happen further on in the play. 

In the next day's lesson, we will use the tone to signify exactly the handerkerchief's significance to each of the major characters.

I will begin this activity by showing a clip from the 1995 movie Othello.  In this scene, Desdemona looks frantically for her lost handkerchief.  Students should get the point that this seemingly insignificant article is actually an important sentimental gift from Othello.