Teaching Approaches

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The Destructive Force of Jealousy as Theme: Jealousy is a major theme that drives the plot of Othello. Iago is jealous of Cassio because Othello has promoted him to second lieutenant, and he is jealous of his wife Emilia’s rumored affair with Othello. Fueled by jealousy, Iago propagates even more jealousy—and ultimately ruins lives—by convincing Othello that Desdemona is being unfaithful to him with Cassio. Othello’s jealousy is piqued and he threatens to kill Cassio and Desdemona for their affair. Even secondary characters like Emilia, Bianca, and Roderigo are motivated by jealousy at certain points of the play. 

  • For discussion: Who are the characters most affected by jealousy? How does jealousy advance the action of the play? 
  • For discussion: How does the plot either validate or invalidate the jealousy in the play? Can Shakespeare’s opinion of jealousy be inferred by his treatment of it as a theme? 
  • For discussion: How do the blameless suffer at the hands of the jealous? 
  • For discussion: Shakespeare has Iago figure jealousy as a “green-eyed monster.” What does that mean? What does it mean that Iago says it? 

Identity and “Otherness” as Themes: Othello explores the various permutations of identity—in the dimensions of race, sex, age, and class—as well as the sense of “otherness” that arises for individuals isolated by their identities. While the intersection of Othello’s race and social class might not have been terribly surprising or offensive to Shakespeare’s audience, characters in the play frequently invoke Othello’s darker skin in a negative context, and it is successfully used as a wedge to drive him further from his wife. In a different way, Desdemona also finds herself alone in her situation, isolated from friends and family by her decision to marry a Moor. As Othello’s violence against her escalates, a societal unwillingness to intervene in domestic affairs prevents any of the men who witness her plight from coming to her aid. 

  • For discussion: In what specific ways is Othello an outsider in Venetian society? What does Othello think about his status as an outsider? How is he viewed by his peers? 
  • For discussion: How central is Othello’s racial identity to the plot? To what extent is Othello a play about race? Explain your reasoning. 
  • For discussion: What barriers and challenges does Desdemona face? In what ways are they defined by her sex? How does she describe her situation to herself and to others? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Shakespeare’s Style of Writing Is Unfamiliar: No, it’s not Old English. In fact, it’s Modern English, albeit Early Modern. Still, reading Shakespeare can be frustrating for students who aren’t familiar with blank verse and the vocabulary of the Elizabethan era. 

  • What to do: Explain to students that blank verse is the basic pattern of language in Shakespeare’s plays, consisting of a verse line of ten syllables with five stresses and no end rhyme. Read aloud a few lines to the students, letting them hear the stresses and syncopation of his work. Read one or more scene aloud as a class, with each student voicing a role. 
  • What to do: Pull vocabulary words from each act and define them for the students. Have them say the words aloud after you pronounce them and carefully explain their meanings. 

Othello Begins in the Middle of the Action: In order to capture the attention of his audience, Shakespeare often began his plays in medias res—Latin for “in the middle of things”—with important action unfolding in the first scene. This quieted the audience and forced everyone to pay attention. These abrupt starts can be unsettling for contemporary students. 

  • What to do: Before reading, give the students some background on who’s who (Iago, Roderigo, Brabantio, Othello), what the setting is (night-time in Venice—very dark and quiet), and the tone (alarming and threatening—people who shout out in the night are either in peril or are perilous). 
  • What to do: Because plays are meant to be seen, consider showing one of many film versions of Othello, being careful to preview the scene or act for anything that your students might find disturbing or objectionable. 

Characters’ Speech and Behavior Is Racist and Offensive: Othello includes characters who use explicitly racist and sexual language. While these facets of the text contribute to its themes, specifically those relating to identity and “otherness,” they can also be distressing to students. 

  • What to do: Before reading, discuss the place of Africans in European society during Shakespeare’s time. Explain that, although Venetian leadership has given Othello a merit-based command, individual characters like Brabantio are still unwilling to allow him complete integration. 
  • What to do: Describe the theater-going experience of Shakespeare’s day, and the expectations audiences had of their entertainment. Differentiate between the bawdy jokes that do not contribute to the play’s conflict and the sexually charged language that drives the development of certain characters’ jealousy and rage. 

Othello Graphically Depicts Domestic Violence: One of the most disturbing elements of Othello is the prevalence of domestic abuse. There are increasing instances of verbal abuse as the play progresses, and the fifth act features episodes of domestic violence before the murders of Desdemona and Emilia at the hands of their husbands. These scenes are potentially upsetting to any audience and may be especially so for younger students. 

  • What to do: Clarify that the domestic violence in Othello is not intended to glorify such abuse but rather to exemplify its horrors. 
  • What to do: Bring the issue out into the open. It is better to address the graveness of the domestic violence depicted than to minimize it. Make sure students know that if they are upset by the domestic violence, their reactions are entirely appropriate. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Othello

While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Othello, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play. 

Focus on friendship and loyalty. Othello believes that Iago is his friend. He believes what Iago says and acts accordingly, only to belatedly recognize the web of lies Iago has woven around him. Roderigo and Cassio also fall under the false spell of Iago’s friendship, only to serve as his pawns and suffer the consequences.

  • What does Othello reveal about relationships between friends? About loyalty? 
  • How can friendships become destructive relationships? How does one know if a friend is loyal?

Focus on military life and civilian life. Othello is a general with an excellent record in battle, the respect of his men and his superiors, and a position of power. He is comfortable in the world of military and masculine hierarchy. The world of women and love, by contrast, is foreign to him. He relies on others to help him navigate his love for Desdemona and his marriage to her.

  • In what ways does Othello show his skill in military life? How do others recognize his skill? 
  • How does this transition into the world of love and marriage challenge and change Othello? What potential themes does this contrast illuminate?

Focus on reputation and personal integrity. Iago and Cassio both deliver speeches about reputation and its importance. Iago, Cassio, Desdemona, and Othello all experience unique fluctuations in their reputations as the play unfolds. In many cases, a character’s outward reputation does not precisely reflect her actual level of integrity.

  • How important is reputation? Can one have a good reputation if one has no personal integrity? How about vice versa? Explain your reasoning. 

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