The Bard Bomb: Tackling Shakespearean Insults

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SWBAT evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone by decoding and articulating Shakespearean insults in a specific passage.

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"Bard-on" my French: Negotiating language through insults


The lesson once again focuses on the importance of language in studying a Shakespearean play.  To lighten the mood, we examine Shakespearean insults and their role in setting mood and atmosphere.  This lesson is also a great opportunity for students to perform a close reading of text since much of the insults are encrypted in puns.  Students will have to decode the pun and identify the insult.  Many of the insults appear in the comic relief scenes, which are dispersed through Act III.  Lastly, we will look closely at the foreshadowing and irony in Act IV.  There are several hints that Desdemona's days are numbered.  The first is her insistence on having her wedding sheets put on her bed and an off the cuff remark that she would like to be "shroud" in them when she dies.  Be careful what you wish for!  The second is the Barbary song of doom that is embedded in Desdemona's head.  Lastly, there is an interesting exchange between Emilia and Desdemona in which Emilia fully admits that she would cheat on her husband "to make him a monarch."  Ironically, Desdemona says she would never be tempted by monetary gains.  However, it is she who is accused of infidelity.

This activity is Common Core aligned as it primarly requires students to determine the meaning of words and phrases (Shakespearean insults) as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or unique.

Plague them with Flies: Shakespearean Insults

30 minutes

This lesson focuses on Shakespearean insults.  Shakespearean insults have a three-fold purpose and that is to set mood, atmosphere, and relationships among characters.  To begin, I play the attached video to demonstrate the purpose and role of Shakespearean insults in one of Shakespeare's works.  They are strategically embedded in his work to help the audience connect and understand the characters.  Students will have yet another opportunity to engage with the language of Shakespeare.  First, I separate students into pairs.  Each pair is given two insults from the attached list.  Students will say the insults to each other and add gestures and body language to go along with them.  Secondly, students will decode the insult to identify its meaning.  How is the speaker insulting the other character?  What does the insult mean?  Finally, I will ask students to connect the Shakespearean insult to a more contemporary one.  Of course, the insult must be classroom appropriate.  Each pair will have two insults; no paired groups will have the same insults.  At the end of the activity, students will present their findings to the class:  the meaning of the insult, appropriate body language, and its twenty-first century equivalent.

Read Othello, Act IV, scene iii

30 minutes

This scene in Othello sets the stage for Desdemona's demise in Act V.  It is riddled with irony and foreshadowing.  Here, Othello orders Desdemona to bed and to dismiss her attendant--who is Emilia.  This mandate is to get Desdemona alone so that he can carry out his murderous plan without any witnesses.  When we read Act V, this scene in Act IV reads like a well-crafted puzzle.  It demonstrates how Shakespeare is able to add minute details to allow a smooth unfolding of action in the final Act of the play.  These details are necessary to digest in order to appreciate the dramatic climax at the end of the play.  Students do need some prompting to recognize the subtle hints and foreshadowing in these scenes.  They have a tendency to read right through them.  I slow the pace of the reading down to a crawl so that we can appreciate Shakespeare's masterful construction of the final scenes of play. 

The foreshadowing in the scene first occurs when Desdemona states that she wishes to be "shroud" in her wedding sheets when she dies.  This is an odd thing to say, but it should raise a few eyebrows especially considering that Desdemona has raised the ire of her war-hero husband.  As such, he is not the type to be still and "cuckolded." The second example occurs when she speaks of her mother's maid Barbary who had a song stuck in her head the day she died.  Ironically, this is the same song Desdemona cannot rid from her mind.  An example of irony is also evident when Emilia admits that she would cheat on her husband "to make him a monarch."  The irony appears when Desdemona says she would never cheat on her husband, not even for all the money in the world.  Sadly, Desdemona is the one being accused of infidelity.  The irony in these last few scenes is at every turn.  After completing the play, we can fully appreciate the effect that these examples have on preparing the reader for what lies ahead.

Essay: Irony and Foreshadowing in Act IV

10 minutes

In this activity, students will write an essay for homework in which they will consider Shakespeare's decision to link the final scene of Act IV to the climax in Act V through a series of foreshadowings and ironic exchanges among characters.  Students should consider how these examples develop and contribute to the dramatic effect in Act V.  Students should also consider what inferences can be gained from the ironic turn of events.  Is the reader to take the irony at face value or is there some greater purpose to it?  Student responses will be accompanied by appropriate text citation that supports the student's argument. Students will use the remainder of class to complete the attached graphic organizer which allows them an opportunity to "organize" their response.  The essay is completed for homework.

Essentially, I want students to see that Desdemona's death is pretty much spelled out to the audience through a series of foreshadowing events.  Students must determine whether the foreshadowing limits the dramatic effect or adds to it.  Also, what purpose does the irony serve? Is Desdemona's death more horrific after we note that Emilia's betrayal with the handkerchief and her willingness to cheat on her husband provide the final nails in Desdemona's coffin?