Archive for the ‘Othello’ Category

By Michael LoMonico


I recently interviewed Russ McDonald, professor of English at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Russ was a resident scholar at the Folger’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute from 1985-Bedford - LoMo1986, and served as the head scholar from 1988-1994. He is the author of The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents and the recent Bedford Shakespeare.

Below is an excerpt from our conversation.


ML:  At the Teaching Shakespeare Institute in 1988, you lectured about the tragic flaw, and wrote an essay about it called “The Flaw in the Flaw” which appears in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free.  I suspect that many teachers aren’t teaching the tragic flaw when they teach Shakespeare but some still are. Can you explain why they shouldn’t?

RUSS:  I have to attribute a lot of this to an article by Phyllis Rose.  She wrote an article in the New York Times in the 1980s that I responded to immediately on this very problem, which is that the idea of a flaw that brings down the heroic/tragic character is just too easy a way of addressing a really complicated representation of human experience.  That is, if you simply say, ” Hamlet delays.  Hamlet cannot make up his mind.”  I mean, the beginning of the Olivier film says, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.”  Well, no, it’s not.

ML: Please explain.

RUSS: Throughout the middle of the 20th century, that seems to be a common way of addressing the tragic experience for teachers and the problem with it is that it reduces to a kind of formula something that is much more complicated and much more interesting.  I don’t think we’d still be watching these plays or reading them with the fervor that we still do if it were as simple as that formula of the tragic flaw seems to make it.  Hamlet, for example, that it’s just a problem of procrastination.  Hamlet can’t make up his mind.  He delays. And the same with Othello.  You know, Othello’s just jealous.  If he weren’t so jealous, everything would be fine.

Bedford 2 - LoMoThe problem is first, it simplifies matters too much.  And second, it implies a kind of moral or ethical superiority on the part of the reader or the audience.  That is, “I’m okay, Hamlet’s not.  If I had been there to tell him to get with the program, then he wouldn’t have had that problem at all.”  And so what it means is that it allows us to feel superior to the character when, in fact, of course, what is important is that we be involved with the experience of the character.

I tend to think of the tragic figure or I try to get my students to think of the tragic figure as a kind of naïve idealist.  That’s one way of thinking about most of the tragic figures.  King Lear, for example, is naïve in that he’s 80 years old, but he’s an innocent in a way.  He thinks that words and meanings match each other, so when his daughter says, “I love you more than eyesight, more than words can wield the matter,” he thinks she means it.  And his belief that people do mean what they say is an admirable and beautiful principle.  But it’s flawed.  I mean, I hate to use the word “flaw,” but it’s a problem.

ML: How is it a problem?

RUSS:  It’s a good problem.  The world would be better if things were that way.  But that’s Lear’s particular problem.  The same thing with Hamlet.  Hamlet wants to know the truth and he wants to act ethically, rightly, on that truth.  And the world keeps putting baffles in front of him.  That’s exactly the problem.  The world will not allow the tragic character to proceed as he or she wishes to do.  Antigone is really the great example of this.  Antigone works so well in thinking about this, because she’s not flawed.  She wants to give a burial to her brothers.

ML:  Right; so Macbeth is just ambitious.

RUSS:  That man’s ambitious.  Exactly.


Michael LoMonico taught English for 33 years. He is currently the National Education Consultant for Folger Education and the author or That Shakespeare Kid.

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By Angela Ward


“Ay, is it not a language I speak?”

All’s Well That Ends Well 2.3


As a drama and US history teacher in Southern California, I use a cross-curricular approach to Shakespeare because of my passionate belief that Shakespeare connects us, to our past, to ourselves, and to each other. This acting centered, ELL-based approach to Shakespeare and history requires two to three class periods.  The real quest for me is to inspire students to understand how and why Shakespeare is relevant.  The overlying goal that I have as a teacher is to convince students that Shakespeare is universally important for everyone, and speaks to all of us, regardless of our home language.

In any language, students speak and learn at their best when they feel safe, connected and loved, so we connect with each other using basic acting/theatre warm up exercises.  We warm up the facial muscles, especially the “articulators”, by making crazy faces, instructing students to chew imaginary bubble gum in various sizes, yawn, make noises by blowing air, and finally graduating to a “WOW” sound.  When the students can put different meanings into the “WOW” sounds, I place them with a partner to learn a Shakespearean greeting, and then instruct them to put different actions behind their greetings.  We’ll switch partners, and learn a word or phrase from the Shakespeare text I am introducing that day, using the same process.

Students performing Shakespeare in Angela Ward's class. (Image: Angela Ward)

Students performing Shakespeare in Angela Ward’s class. (Image: Angela Ward)

This serves as a vocal warm-up, and a simple physical warm-up follows.  We conclude the warm-up phase with a “rhythm exercise”, which involves clapping and stomping out a beat, then adding a new, longer text to the beat. If I am teaching a unit on slavery, I use Frederick Douglass’ favorite play: Othello.  Students are “feeling” the rhythm of the text in their bodies while learning lines – without worrying about correct pronunciation or what the text is “supposed” to mean.  They are focused on working together, and staying in rhythm.  After succeeding, we look at the acting adage I have written in large letters on the white board:  “IT’S NOT THE WORDS…IT’S THE ACTION BEHIND THE WORDS!”  Students then choose an action, which they perform while speaking the text they’ve now memorized.  Wild group applause (and laughter) follows each effort!

Next, the group assembles with highlighters, pencils, and graphic organizers.  I provide a list of cognates, signal words, homophones, and synonyms students will find as we read together, along with a character map. There is no need to provide a vocabulary list for words in the scene: students use context clues, and, if necessary, glosses on the left-hand side of their Folger editions. If I am teaching a unit on slavery, as mentioned above, I pass out copies of a scene – or lines — from Othello, along with a class copy of the Folger Othello. Students are encouraged to highlight and mark up their texts. I introduce Frederick Douglass, with pictures and illustrations. I explain that Shakespeare was his favorite author and invite students to make connections between selected passages from both Douglass and Shakespeare.

Then we really dig into Othello. The scene we now read includes the lines they’ve memorized earlier. Working with a partner, students read aloud to each other.  They speculate why Frederick Douglass loved the play. They analyze the scene and agree upon an “action behind the words”.  We then look at pictures of Frederick Douglass, and his home – where a picture of Othello hung over his fireplace.  We look at images of slavery in America, and read excerpts from Douglass’ autobiography.  We consider the similarities and differences between Othello’s experience as an African in Venetian society and Douglass’ experience as an African American in antebellum America. We create a graphic of words and images from the Othello text that relate to our study of Douglass. Students draw character maps of Frederick Douglass’ life during the particular period we’ve studied from his autobiography, using the Othello character map as a blueprint.

Finally, students share their discoveries in a way that feels comfortable. They choose a performance, or they share their decorated map or graphic. The purpose of this lesson is to introduce big questions around slavery and identity, increase vocabulary, and improve critical thinking and reading skills.  My greater goal is to inspire an appetite for Shakespeare and make connections with his work!


Angela Ward holds an MFA in theatre, and did post graduate work with the Royal National Theatre in London, and Playwrights Horizons, New York. She attended a Folger teacher training at the University of Nebraska, and runs a high school theatre department, in addition to teaching United States history, and various ESL classes at a Southern California high school.

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By Greta Brasgalla


As a “veteran” teacher in my 22nd year of teaching, I sometimes look back at how I used to teach when I first started. It makes me cringe. And the teaching materials I used? Of course, I don’t have any of them because they are outdated and irrelevant.


And then there’s Shakespeare Set Free. It was published almost 20 years ago and I use it every time I teach Shakespeare (and everything else). Here’s what I did recently when we studied Othello.


We were working Act 3, scene 3 of Othello. This scene is really crucial because it is the climax of the play, but it is LONG.  I decided to use Lesson 17 in Shakespeare Set Free–Teaching Twelfth Night and Othello, which broke the scene up into 10 parts and had the students perform their parts in a “relay” style.


I divided up the students and gave them their parts of the scene. However, as an added component of the relay, I decided to incorporate a visual aid. I gave each group a post-it tabletop chart and told them to provide a frame by frame drawing of what happens in their scene. Before performing, we would unveil the cartoon drawing of the action. At the end of the performances, the students would have a visual of the action of the scene.  Here are some examples of their drawings:

Othello cartoon storyboards. (Image: Greta Brasgalla)

Othello cartoon storyboards. (Image: Greta Brasgalla)

The students had a great time with this and they really got a full understanding of the action in the scene. This method is great not only for teaching Shakespeare. Reading a novel with a really long chapter? Do a relay!  Non-fiction article that is really detailed and drawn out? Do a relay!  Short Story Analysis? Do a relay!


Finally, I wanted to share some insight about performance in the classroom. As English teachers we are told that students must do lots of low-stakes writing in the classroom to prepare them for high-stakes writing scenarios.  I believe the same is true about performance.  I regularly allow my students opportunities for low-stakes performance. As a result, they are calm and professional when they have presentations in my class as well as other classes. They also take great pride in what they are able to come up with in a short term performance situation. They love taking pictures (a student took the pictures above) and love taking video of their performances. They find joy and laughter in seeing each other perform and that is what teaching is all about.


Greta Brasgalla is a member of the Folger National Teacher Corps and an alumna of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. She is currently a curriculum specialist and classroom coach at El Dorado High School in El Paso, Texas. Greta also edited the teaching modules on the new www.folger.edu.

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Photo: PBS


The second season of Shakespeare Uncovered begins on January 30th.  The Folger has been asked to work with WNET THIRTEEN to create support material for teachers and their students. I’ve been lucky to have seen the series already and want to share some of the highlights with you.

Some of the Learning Media Resources have already been posted. Each resource takes clips from the episode and includes Teaching Tips, Discussion Questions, Handouts, and the appropriate Standards.  Take a look at these:

Just as PBS did with Season 1, all episodes will be streamed for free and available on DVD. I encourage you to watch them. Here is the schedule for Season 2:

  • January 30
    • A Midsummer Night’s Dream hosted by Hugh Bonneville
    • King Lear hosted by Christopher Plummer
  • February 6
    • The Taming of the Shrew with Morgan Freeman
    • Othello with David Harewood
  • February 13
    • Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall
    • Romeo and Juliet with Joseph Fiennes

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Happy holidays, readers! We’ll be on hiatus until January 6, 2015. Check back then for a new post—and have a very merry winter break!


By Sara Lehn 

Othello promptbook

Paul Robeson’s promptbook from production of Othello in 1930. (Folger Shakespeare Library)


Occasionally, those of us who revere the Bard speak of his works as if they are some sort of holy text. These plays contain such incredible and untouchable genius that it’s sometimes hard not to treat them with awe.

The danger is that once we start to look at a work of literature as something to be revered we cease to see it as something over which we can take ownership.  It is too awe inspiring, and what right have we, peons of the modern educational system, to touch such perfection?

The answer is, of course, that we have every right, and that teaching our students to revere these plays as paintings in a museum, to be seen and not touched, is to put up a wall between inquiring young minds and the very real and lively nature of these plays.  Instead, we need to give students the tools to take these words into their hearts and their minds and truly embrace them.

The need to dig deeply into the language is one reason that performance is such a key element of teaching Shakespeare.  Sometimes, however, jumping directly into performance can be a bit intimidating for shy students.  It can be helpful to offer other ways for students to familiarize themselves with Shakespeare’s language as part of the performance process. (more…)

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Karen Peakes (Emilia) and Janie Brookshire (Desdemona) in Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Karen Peakes (Emilia) and Janie Brookshire (Desdemona) in Othello, directed by Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, 2011. Photo by Carol Pratt.

By Deborah Gascon

I set a goal this school year to include several, less time-consuming (but equally as meaningful), mini-research projects into my teaching of literature. Enter resident experts!

This quick strategy to get students researching more frequently scaffolds the skills they need to complete the big, scary research paper we assign in the spring.

The research also provided another opportunity to delve deeply into the text and study Shakespeare’s language. I started using resident experts with Othello, but this project is universal to anything you teach.

I provided my students with a list of possible research topics regarding Othello and Shakespeare and the time period.

Topics included, but were not limited to, Moors, Cyprus, Venice, maps, naval officers, interracial marriage laws of the time period, rights of women, love tokens, willow trees/the willow song, sumptuary laws–the list goes on.

Some students added topics while we read: one student researched the psychology behind jealousy (after reading Iago ironically boast “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster”) and another student asked to research the symbolism behind strawberries. The topics were vast and self-selected.

After students chose a topic, they were given time to research during our reading of Othello.  I told my students to find the five most interesting points about that topic related to the reading and then to back up those research topics with evidence from the text, combining Shakespeare’s language with their research. (more…)

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Performance helps bring Shakespeare alive, and listening to his words being spoken brings them off the page and into a new relevance for students.

With the Folger Shakespeare Library launching a new series of Shakespeare audio editions, teachers now have access to unabridged texts from the gold standard Folger Editions performed by a full cast of Shakespearean actors and expertly produced by Folger Theatre.

“We know that Shakespeare’s plays were written with the human voice – an actor’s voice – in mind, which is why it is so important to encounter the Folger Editions with one’s ears as well as eyes,” says Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. “These recordings offer ‘another way in’ to Shakespeare’s plays by offering powerful audio performances.”

The series has launched with five of Shakespeare’s most popular plays: Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet.

These audio editions, available from Simon & Schuster Audio on CD or for download, can be used together with Folger Digital Texts, an online searchable resource that provides the Folger Editions text of 38 Shakespeare plays.

Check out the Folger Shakespeare Library website to learn more and to listen to excerpts.

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