Kevin J. Costa teaches English and drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD
Othello (1.3, 2.1, 3.3, 3.4, 4.1, 4.2)
What's On for Today and Why
In this lesson, students will approach Shakespeare’s Othello through the lens of bullying -- a modern-day adolescent problem of which students may have first-hand experience. By drawing on their own understanding of bullying and on definitions and descriptions of bullying widely available, students will have a powerful entry point into one of Shakespeare’s most psychologically complex plays.
This lesson will likely provide ample opportunities to engage students in timely discussions of pressures they might be facing in their own experiences, and the hope is that beginning with a focus on a highly charged issue like bullying, this will allow students a way to start “doing” things with Shakespeare’s language instead of getting caught in the idea that they can’t understand it. An engaging issue can help students to bypass this block.
Students will participate in a pre-reading discussion of bullying in order to establish definitions from which they will draw in discussions of the play as it is studied.
At the conclusion of their reading, students will stage select scenes from the play in order to understand and assess whether characters in Othello are perpetrators and/or victims of bullying as our culture understands the term today. Final staging of scenes will follow the festival model proposed by Folger Education as a way of creating a capstone project for your study of the play.
This lesson is designed to frame an entire approach to Othello and will take approximately two to three 50-minute classes prior to reading the play and approximately one to two weeks following the conclusion of reading. The staging of scenes may be tailored to the class’s interests, time, and student size; however, teachers should adapt any part of this as they see fit.
What You Need
Folger edition of Othello
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Folger’s YouTube Video, “Language in Othello”
Computers with Internet access
An open space
How to Stage a Scene
Othello Performance Worksheet
What To Do
Screen the Folger YouTube video, “Othello’s Language” and facilitate a discussion students about points they find interesting and that pique their curiosity about the play. What do they think they’ll encounter in this tragedy?
Review two sections of the video with your students, 2:46-2:50 (Michele Osherow’s quote, “We see what a few words can do to deceive and to destroy”) and 4:45-5:10 (Casey Kaleba’s quote, “One of the ideas Shakespeare is exploring in Othello is the ability for language to express and to hide truth. Othello is tricked not by deeds but by the clever manipulation of words. Desdemona dies because of words spoken about her. And Iago tells us directly his lies are merely free and honest advice”).
Next, share some current descriptions of bullying, which can be found on the Web site, www.stopbullying.gov (a simple Google search will provide several additional credible resources in addition to the resources of your school). In particular, examine the bullet points related to verbal and social bullying under the category, “What Is Bullying?” which can be found on the home page.
Facilitate a discussion of bullying, encouraging students (to the extent that they’re comfortable) about their experiences.
Write key words and phrases that arise in the conversation on chart paper or on the board, and plan to keep this visible in your study of the play.
Study Othello. If you are new to the Folger approach to performance-based teaching, consult the volume of Shakespeare Set Free that has a full unit plan on the play. You are also encouraged to consult the Folger Web site’s section with lesson plans on Othello.
When you’ve completed the play, break your class up into pairs (this lesson assumes 24 students per class, but you may have to be flexible based on your numbers). Assign each pair a scene or part of a scene from the following list; act, scene, and lines refer to the Folger paperback and e-book editions:
Students should work in their pairs and stage their scene. Depending on time and resources, you may wish to have scenes staged with costumes, props, and lights, but this is not necessary. It’s more important that students engage directly with Shakespeare’s words and the relationships that stem from them. See the handout, How to Stage a Scene, below for tips on staging.
While lines can be learned in any number of ways, the following process, offered by Caleen Jennings (Folger Teaching Artist and Professor of Theatre at American University), provides an excellent method:
“Go through the text word by word and ask the students to speak the word aloud and come up with a physical movement for each word. Encourage students to use their whole bodies. For punctuation marks, ask them to come up with a movement and a sound. They are to repeat the same movement when words and punctuation marks are repeated” (Page to Stage: Preparing for Your Festival, p. 22, Shakespeare Set Free Toolkit). For an excellent demonstration of this technique, see Caleen Jennings in action (also available on Vimeo)
Once students have learned their lines, staged their scenes, and have rehearsed, schedule an Othello festival. Again, this can occur in your classroom or in a theatre; location does not matter. If you have access to Page to Stage: Preparing for Your Festival, available in the Folger Toolkit, please consult it for helpful hints. It is not necessary to have this book, however.
Students should then present their scenes in the order in which they occur in the play; if students are new to playing Shakespeare, they will get the hang of it very quickly.
Students who are not performing should take notes on what their peers are presenting; please print the worksheet below with directions and prompts for this part of the lesson.
- Full-class discussion in which students must respond to some or all of the prompts for one or more scenes; teachers will be able to tailor this assessment based what works best for their classes;
- A critical essay that asks students to focus on one or two scenes in which they take a position about whether the scene or scenes exhibit bullying as they understand the term. The position they take is less important than their textually-supported defense of it; they must have a clear thesis, supporting paragraphs, and clear evidence from the text.
A blend of the above.
How Did It Go?
- Were students engaged in discussions about bullying?
- Did they see any connections between modern-day definitions of bullying and the status dynamics between characters in Othello?
- Did the focus on the topic of bullying help students get past initial fears about the difficulty of Shakespeare’s words?
- Did a focus on bullying help students to read the text much more closely since their reading was led by an issue?
- Did students focus on words Shakespeare’s characters use to dominate another person?
- Did the students have fun and find Shakespeare’s play relevant?
Transfer and Application
This lesson will work with just about any play. Some plays and character pairings include:
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Macbeth
Richard III and Lady Anne, Buckingham, Margaret, Queen Elizabeth (and many others), Richard III
Angelo and Isabella, Measure for Measure
Hamlet and Gertrude, Hamlet
Petruchio and Kate, Taming of the Shrew
Kate and Bianca, Taming of the Shrew
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.