Archive for the ‘Othello’ Category

Shakespeare’s England was not overseen by a democratic government. Monarchs ruled for life, and successors were chosen based on royal bloodlines or who won which war. Despite this, Shakespeare knew that the public’s perception of a monarch went a long way towards the success of their reign. He gave his characters the power of language to persuade and control others. Many of his characters are gifted rhetoricians – they use language and the power of their words to bring other people around to their side.


Mark Antony – uses the power of rhetoric to turn a huge Roman mob against Brutus and Cassius.

Henry V – uses the power of speech to boost his small English army’s morale as they seige France’s much larger forces.

Richard III – uses the power of words to manipulate his court and to become king.

Iago – uses the power of language to manipulate Othello’s view of his wife and lieutenant Cassio.

Hamlet – uses the power of words to turn right and wrong actions around in his head until he decides what to do.

It’s interesting to see, too, how the Roman elections look in Shakespeare’s plays. Brother is pitted against brother in Act 1 Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus to win the seat of emperor  Coriolanus spends the first half of his play looking to win the popular vote after proving himself in war, and the people’s vote elects the Triumvirate of Marc Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus in the war against Brutus and Cassius following Julius Caesar’s death.

The election lights usually fall on the person best able to win the people with their words in these situations. (Though the people technically elected Titus after his success in war against the Goths and he puts in a good word for the former emperor’s eldest son Saturninus instead of taking seat himself.)

We’ve been sharing lesson plans on the power of persuasive speech on our shiny new Facebook Page today to explore these characters’ impact on popular and singular opinion. As a democratic nation, today eligible voters are using their individual voices to collectively elect the nation’s leader for the next four years. Were we won by words, words, words? How do our nation’s leaders compare to Shakespeare’s (both historical and literary)?

Comment below, or Like us on Facebook to tell us more!

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~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
But by reflection, by some other things.
(Julius Caesar, I.2)

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to meet with several 10th graders who were studying Othello. The classroom teacher let me loose, so after a very brief discussion (which consisted of my asking “what do you know already about Shakespeare and Othello?” and gathering up their responses to show them how much they do know), I had them up on their feet speaking the language.

As students sometimes are, these kids were a little put off by Shakespeare’s language. On the page, it felt stilted and even boring to them. But once they put themselves into the action, using their bodies and voices to bring life to the words, they discovered (in one student’s words) “Shakespeare is not that bad.” In fact, some were quite stunned to realize (to quote another student) “Othello is super duper cool.”

Most of the class was spent acting out—pushing the desks and chairs out of the way and creating short scenes. Students demonstrated how daws would peck at Iago’s heart if he wore it on his sleeve, showed how Iago would snatch the handerkerchief away from Emilia, and reveled in the final scene with all the death.

It’s tempting to end a class with all this action and send students on their way in this great mood. However, instead I had them answer five questions, in writing, to reflect on their experience and what they had learned. Giving them this opportunity is a final, satisfying piece in experience-based learning: putting the learning into their own words in their own context for their own lives. I asked students what they had learned and how that learning might help them in other classes or other areas of their lives. There were no “right” or “wrong” answers, just an opportunity for students to think about what they had done and how it mattered.

Some of my favorite comments from this group were:

The most helpful activity was the portraying of lines in different ways. It showed how acting the lines differently changed the meaning of the words.

When we talked about how the plays were not meant to be read then. That helps me to imagine when I read more Shakespeare in the future, to picture it being in a theater so I can understand it better.

It was helpful seeing people in class act out the scenes according to the play, not professional actors in a movie.

I understand more how Shakespeare plays were acted out in the Globe theater. Like how loud the actors had to be and how they used animal blood and how they acted with people being very noisy and thieves in the crowd stealing money.

It was helpful discussing different ways the characters could be portrayed and seeing them portrayed. It helped me understand the depth of the characters.

I think the most helpful part for me was when we talked about how to make your expression in your voice help the audience understand what the words mean.

It was helpful hearing and seeing the lines acted out instead of just reading them on paper.

Acting out the scenes was helpful because I got to understand how the language contributes to the performance.

We are now Shakespearean actors!

How do you encourage to students think about what they are learning and make Shakespeare more than words on a page?

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine. Carol Ann is also, now, one of our most frequent contributors!

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~by Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger

students of the Islamic Saudi Academy perform scenes from OTHELLO at the 2011 Secondary Schools Festival

On Tuesday I shared a Folger-favorite activity where students create the theatre-going experience of an Elizabethan crowd to see why Shakespeare’s plays had to be so arresting. To continue the experience of bringing words to life, I encourage students to be up, moving around, playing with the language and the motions. Having them imagine what it means to be Iago or Othello.

As an example, here’s a fantastic passage to have students play with:

Iago:                Ha, I like not that.

Othello:           What dost thou say?

Iago:                Nothing, my lord, or if—I know not what.

Othello:           Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

Iago:                Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guiltylike,
Seeing your coming.

Othello:           I do believe ‘twas he.

Have students read these lines, which are easy to understand, aloud to each other. Are there hidden meanings? How can students use their voices and their bodies to make the lines “say” more? Iago doesn’t come out and say anything much—why is this exchange so powerful in his grand scheme?

Another fun scene for movement takes place between Emilia and Iago later in the play:

Emilia:             …What will you give me now
For the same handkerchief?

Iago:                What handkerchief?

Emilia:             What handkerchief?
Why, that the Moor first gave to Desdemona;
That which so often you did bid me steal.

Iago:                Hast stol’n it from her?

Emilia:             No, ‘faith; she let it drop by negligence.
And, to the advantage, I, being here, took’t up.
Look, here it is.

Iago:                A good wench; give it me.

Emilia:             What will you do with ‘t, that you have been so earnest
To have me filch it?

Iago:                Why, what’s that to you?

Emilia:             If it be not for some purpose of import,
Give’t me again: poor lady, she’ll run mad
When she shall lack it.

Iago:                Be not acknown on ‘t; I have use for it.
Go, leave me.

Students already understand the concept of the game “keep-away,” which lends itself well to this exchange on both sides. How does it motivate either character?

As students have opportunities for performance-based learning, they are able to gain an understanding of the language and the plot because the story becomes real.

What other exercises have you used to help students experience Shakespeare and bring the text to life?

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine.

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Today’s student matinee of Othello had a great crowd of high schoolers from several different schools. Though there was some uncomfortable twittering during some dramatic moments, for the most part they were engaged with the performance. Afterwards, the actors returned for a talk-back with the students who asked some pretty interesting questions about the characters, especially “honest” Iago.

One student wondered aloud whether or not nature is indeed “erring on itself” as Othello says when he is convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity, and whether it was actually nature taking over and making everything easier for Iago to control. Ian Merrill Peakes (after recovering from his initial shock), responded that Iago is taking advantage of the side of Othello’s nature that perhaps no one sees. Nature is erring on itself and warping back into being more natural, but everything that happens comes from the characters’ true natures at some point.

Another student commented that Iago is a character with many faces, and how did Ian approach that twisted character? Iago is a sociopath, Ian remarked, and believes in some way that what he’s doing is right, or for the greater good. Everyone also agreed that their characters truly believe Iago to be their friend throughout the play, until proven otherwise. Ian mentioned that Shakespeare gives you all sorts of clues, but also all sorts of nothing in terms of playing this part – each relationship Iago has is represented with a different attitude, a different face, and choosing which one to play when is the real work.

All in all, we were very impressed and pleased with today’s audience, and are looking forward to our next two student matinees next month! If you could ask anything of a character from Othello, what would it be?

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Folger Theatre hosts student matinees for their innovative productions each season. School groups attend in droves to see fresh life breathed into Shakespeare’s texts, or a creative new concept or setting which sets the production apart from others.

HAMLET, Folger Theatre 2010. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Occasionally, however, an audience member at one of these performances will take offense to an interpretation, a character, or even a line of text from the play. The Theatre does its best to make recommendations on age-appropriateness, and we do our best in Education to present the Director’s vision with background information and discussion topics from the plays in each of our study guides for these audiences ahead of time for preparation. Yet there still may be a person who takes offense at something from the play.

How do you prepare your students for a performance of a Shakespeare play?

Do you research the Theatre’s performance history? Is Theatre etiquette discussed?

Do you read the play ahead of time or is the performance an introduction?

Are themes and social or moral issues from the play discussed ahead of time, or afterwards?

We’re very interested in learning how educators prepare for a performance with their class, so please let us know in the comments!

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Carl Van Vechten. Portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello. Silver gelatin photographic print, 1944. Folger Shakespeare Library.

We are about halfway through the fall semester of the High School Fellowship Program. Every year we bring students from public and private schools from DC, MD, and VA to study three Shakespeare plays from three perspectives: scholar, performer, and audience member. The students all bring unique ideas to the table and challenge themselves and each other through text based analysis of the plays.  Yesterday we continued the Othello conversation.

As a theatre practitioner and person of color, I have frequently walked away from Othello experiences dissatisfied.  Productions I have attended did not seem to tell the whole story. Discussions of the play did not move beyond black and white.  The question of “otherness” is so much more pervasive and timeless.

Our fellows engaged in a mature conversation about faith, jealousy, loyalty, and race as they relate to Othello.  It is not often that I sit amongst a fairly diverse group of young people who are able to step outside of what they know/experience as being different.

Below are some questions we discussed.  They did not agree on the answers, however, their responses made this tragedy accessible and exciting.

Despite his position is Othello weak?

What are all of the ways in which religion permeates the tragedy of Othello?

What is at the core of Iago’s motivation?

What does Desdemona leave behind when she travels to Cyprus?

How can Emilia betray Desdemona?

What do you think?

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Yesterday was our Theatre’s first rehearsal for Othello, where the non-Production staff of the Folger gets to learn what the upcoming production’s concept, design, and themes will look like.

Set Rendering for OTHELLO by designer Tony Cisek (c).

We can often see more of ourselves in our history than in a reflection of our present. This will not be a “modern-setting” Shakespeare where the men wear business suits and the women wear heels. Rather, the play will be set during the crusades of Richard the Lionheart. Historically, Cyprus was taken by the Christians by 1203, and would have provided a good resting point for an idle and restless militia waiting for their next assignment. Instead of looking at the play through a lens of racial prejudice, Richmond is more interested in the religious divisions between Christians and Muslims then and – in a way – how those divisions look now.

I think it is incredibly interesting when art imitates life, but the “mirror up to nature” does not have to be an actual reflective surface showing us ourselves exactly – rather, this mirror can be a curvy, colorful fun-house mirror that shows us ourselves as we could be, or our perceptions in a different way.

UPDATE! Folger Theatre will be keeping a production blog of the behind-the-scenes process, helmed by actor Louis Butelli (playing Roderigo). Check it out HERE!

What sort of themes are you able to discuss with your class through Shakespeare? Which plays are the richest for this kind of discussion? Tell us in the comments!

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