Marjorie Margolis teaches English at Conant High School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
What's On for Today and Why
In this lesson, students will examine the meter Shakespeare uses in the dialogue between Emilia and Desdemona. They will learn how to recognize changes in meter and then use their knowledge of these changes to explore each character's thought process.
This lesson will take one 50-minute class period.
What You Need
Folger edition of Othello
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
What To Do
1. Review iambic pentameter with your students. Remind them that an iambic pentameter line is composed of 5 iambic feet. Each foot consists of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. Have the students beat out the iambs on their desks while speaking the following phrase: "my BIRTHday IS the TWENT-i-EIGHTH of JUNE." Then, write the phrase on the board, marking each foot with marks for unstressed and stressed syllables, and separating the five iambic feet with diagonal slashes.
2. As a class, read Othello 4.3.63-77. Go around the room, having each student read a line of the scene in iambic pentameter. They will soon discover that this will be very difficult, because many of these lines are not in regular iambic pentameter meter. Each time a student trips up (because the verse does not fit into iambs or because the line is more or less than 5 feet) have the students circle the phrase or line.
3. Place the students into small groups and ask them to look closely at the text just read by the class, paying attention to the circled phrases. Ask them to consider how the changes in meter affect the scene: Why does Shakespeare change the meter at these spots? What can the meter changes teach us about the character's emotions? Tell them to pay particular attention to "split verse," (an iambic pentameter line shared by two or more speakers) and consider what these shared lines tell us about Emilia and Desdemona: How important is the conversation they're having? What is the difference in their experiences? Have each group share its thoughts with the class.
4. Have a student continue reading past line 78. All of the students should notice that the lines are not in verse but prose. Have the student continue to read to line 96.
5. Back in their groups, ask the students to think about why this part of the scene is written in prose: Has the topic of their conversation changed? Have their attitudes altered? They should come up with 1–2 possible reasons to share with the class.
6. Now, once again ask students to read the rest of the scene line-by-line, emphasizing the iambic pentameter. As before, ask the students to circle the places where the meter doesn't fit.
7. Finally, have the students, in groups, repeat step 3, minus the questions on "split verse."
8. In class, or for homework, ask each student to write a one-page essay outlining their conclusions from the exercise. The students should identify the changes in meter and discuss possible reasons for the deviations from iambic pentameter. They should imagine what actors could do on stage with the changes in meter: How could the shifts in meter be used to develop a character?
How Did It Go?
Was the entire class engaged in the process of discovery? Did the students learn to recognize iambic pentameter and deviations from it? Were they able to use the shifts in meter to make observations about the characters and their mental states?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.