Instructors’ Teaching Experience
My students took some time to get into the play, but once they had a general grasp on what was going on, their various backgrounds took them to interesting places. One of my students, a returning soldier, was interested in the relationship between Iago and Othello, and another of my students who was a big fan of popular movies made a fascinating comparison between this play and Mean Girls. While it can take some time to get into, my class enjoyed it once they got past their hang-ups with the dialogue—something we worked hard on during the first week of study. One thing that can be handy is to give them Act summaries so they know the basic events of the Act and you don’t have to spend so much time making sure they understood what they read in terms of content. I would definitely recommend teaching this play. [Jacob Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org]
As with any play, it can be useful to examine specific performances from it to help the students see how production decisions significantly affect the way characters and moments in the play are perceived. [Miriam Gilbert, email@example.com]
The Power of the Director
I have my students do a short in-class writing on how they would direct a given scene or part of a scene in Othello (I usually use the final scene between Othello and Desdemona, culminating in her death). Much like Miriam Gilbert’s staging paper, I ask them how they would set up the stage, how they would direct the actors to say the lines and move, what sort of setting they would use, what they would be looking for in their casting for Othello and Desdemona, how they would interpret the props, etc. After they finish their brief in-class writing, we have a group discussion about how different productions can ultimately make it almost a different play with a different meaning, and discuss whether the play in fact has a core within the text itself that cannot change, or whether everything about the play can be changed through staging and direction. We also talk about how different people’s productions pick up on different aspects of the scene (including, sometimes, aspects that are not immediately obvious). Overall this has worked well for me. [Joseph Rodriguez, firstname.lastname@example.org]
The Three Dramatic Unities
Most of my students groan whenever I go into lecture mode on the history of such-and-such literary development. However, in the case of Othello, I found an appropriately interesting opportunity to provide them with a basic understanding of an important concept in the history of Drama in a quick and interactive way. While discussing Othello, they, on their own initiative, raised questions related to the time-lapse between events in the play, and the general pacing of the action (if your students don’t raise these concerns on their own, you can always ask them to think about time in advance of a class meeting).
At this point, I briefly explained to them the three dramatic unities as derived from Aristotle’s Poetics:
- unity of action – the plot must develop a single line of action
- unity of time – course of the play must take place within 24 hours
- unity of place – the entirety of the play must take place within the same geographical location
This concept opens the opportunity to let them both (1) vent their complaints regarding the complexity of Shakespeare, but also (2) come to some kind of an appreciation, if not then an understanding, of his art. For instance, I began by asking the following questions: Which of these rules does Shakespeare break? How does he break them? What’s the effect of breaking them? My students didn’t hesitate to respond to this string of questions, but the next few that I asked took some more contemplation on their part: Why did he break them? Did he have good reason to do so? We’ve discussed the complexities of Iago’s scheme as he manipulates these other characters—would Shakespeare have been able to depict such scheming while abiding by the three unities? The class unanimously agreed that he would not have been able to present such a complex plot within those three constraints.
These questions which are structured around the concept of the three unities are, then, best used on your second day of teaching Othello; or at least after you’ve been able to demonstrate the complexities of Iago’s machinations and/or those of the play in general. [Michael Sarabia, email@example.com]
On the first day of discussing the play, I divided my class into small groups and assigned each group a character they would have to track for the next two weeks. Each group then drafted Facebook profiles for their character (on the white board, which enabled them to recognize relationships between characters a bit better) and came up with status updates for Act I (and I kept this up for the rest of the time we discussed the play, so I made them pretend the characters carry Blackberry devices/iPhones with them). I found the activity extremely helpful to get students engaged in an initial discussion of Othello, especially if they are having troubles getting past the archaic language. One caveat, though: the novelty of the exercise will fizzle (at least in my case it did). My students had a great time during our first week (and came up with really creative status updates), but lost interest in the activity during our second week. [Sonja Mayrhofer, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Cool interview with a recent director of Othello, Peter Sellars, who set the play in Washington D.C. after the election of Barack Obama. You can find a link to the 17 minute audio file at NPR’s website here. [Ann Pleiss Morris, email@example.com]