Concepts in Shakespeare
Copyright Katie Speed, 2016
Enduring Understanding: Despite its distinct original setting and style, the themes, character motivations, and relationships in Shakespearean plays are reflected in many different periods throughout history.
Essential Question: Why does Shakespeare’s writing continue to be performed 400 years after its first performances?
Learning Goals: Students will be able to…
identify the major themes in William Shakespeare’s Othello.
transfer the Elizabethan context of these events to other contexts.
examine the biases through which they may have initially read the text.
apply various lenses to the text to explore other possible understandings.
identify, explain, and “pitch” a conceptual production of Othello that centers on a theme, character, or relationship and is justified by the text.
interrogate their own places in various social movements.
Day One - Friday, January 8 - Marxist Lens
Discussion warm-up: What kinds of power do you see operating in the play?
Body of discussion: Marxist Theory in our world and in Othello
Define Marxism within the context of this discussion (Appendix A)
What are some ideologies or sets of beliefs that you’ve come across in our world?
What are the prevailing ideologies in Hamlet?
Which forces/ideologies do you see as being strongest? How do they affect who’s in power?
How do these ideologies affect the relationships within the play?
Short discussion, based on student response during the actual reading of the text: “How did Othello get the job if everyone’s so racist?”
In other words: What other forces bring respect to a character who is otherwise lower on the social ladder because of his race?
Wrap-up: Marxist Literary Theory Sheet (Appendix A)
The goal of this sheet is to open students up to looking at the relationships between characters in new ways by considering the various power structures that operate within them. For example, we can better understand Iago’s anger if we view him as feeling that the social position he is owed based on his status and work ethic was taken from him unfairly, or if we recognize that his military position greatly dictates his position in society.
Additionally, the final activity asks students to consider their own positions in society, which forces them to consider biases that they might bring into the text.
Journal prompt for homework: After discussing Marxist Literary Theory, do you think that your position in the social structure of our society has influenced your reading of Othello? If so, how?
Day Two - Tuesday, January 12 - Feminist/Gender Lens (language)
Discuss Marxist Journal Prompt (on volunteer basis) - Any new revelations?
Introduction to Feminism/Gender Lens: Gendered Language Exercise (Appendix B)
Directions: Read each word in the right column and determine the gender connotation that that word has: masculine, feminine, both, or neither. This shouldn’t be necessarily your personal feelings about the word, but what you think the general connotations of those words are.
Discuss results (second page of Appendix B). Points to bring around:
Do any of these words have a gender in their definition?
What conclusions can we draw about language and gender relations based on this exercise?
Introduce Feminist/Gender Lens:
Use of “gendered” language contributes to mood, impressions of characters, understanding of motivations, etc. in a piece of text.
Men and women write differently - how does this affect the pieces they write?
How might Shakespeare’s experience of gender relations have affected the characters and relationships he wrote?
Portrayal of female characters - playing into assumptions about gender, or bucking stereotypes
Examples: Desdemona vs. Emilia
Gender of reader can affect response to a piece of text
Relationships between characters are affected by the genders of those characters and their society’s perceptions of gender
Where do you see gender playing a role in Othello?
Potential responses: marital roles and expectations; Desdemona’s divided duty between father and husband; domestic violence
Day Three - Wednesday, January 13 - Feminist/Gender Lens (cont’d)
Review Gendered Language Exercise
Close reading of two speeches (Appendix C)
Directions: Read the following speeches, marking any words that you feel are particularly gendered and determine which gender is connoted.
Discuss words we identified as gendered. Potential responses:
In Desdemona’s speech: violence, storm, fortunes, honour, valiant, peace, war
In Othello’s speech: soul, chaste, blood, smooth, light, Promethean, rose
Potential conclusions: use of gendered language indicates the traits that each of these characters find attractive in their mates; their love for each other brings out the opposite gender’s associations within them
Day Four - Friday, January 15 (no class - Question Bridge assignment)
Left for Penn on this day, so the class was assigned to visit an art installation at the Von Auersperg Gallery entitled “Question Bridge: Black Males.”
Description of the installation (Appendix D): “Question Bridge: Black Males” is a five-channel video installation that aims to represent and redefine Black male identity in America by disrupting traditional generalizations that cover the incredible diversity of thought, character, and identity among Black Men.
Assignment: “Write a two page response to the following prompt: How can some of the questions of identity, race, and other themes raised by this exhibit relate to Othello?”
Day Five - Monday, January 18 - Race Relations and Perspective-Taking
Discussion: What connections did you draw between “Question Bridge” and Othello?
What instances of institutional racism have you witnessed in your life?
What instances of racism exist in the world of this play?
Short discussion on “concepts”
Examples: Ten Things I Hate About You as a concept for Taming of the Shrew; Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet
Watched trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet
Framing of discussion: What do we know about this world? How is it different from the world of the original Romeo and Juliet?
Homework: Considering the various lenses that we have discussed in class, come up with three possible “concepts” for this play that keep in mind the context of the world of the play. Determine the basic “world of the play” for these concepts. What is the time and place of this production? What is the sociopolitical context of the chosen time and place? Who is in power? What role does religion play? etc.
Day Six - Wednesday, January 20 - Concept Brainstorm
Break into pairs and discuss the three concepts you brainstormed for homework with your partner. Ask questions, determine inconsistencies, etc.
Discussion questions in pairs:
What themes, characters, or relationships come into focus through this concept?
What, if anything, will be different from the Elizabethan Othello through this concept?
Why does Othello need to be performed this way? Or, what unique perspective can we gain by telling the story this way?
Come together as a class and share from discussions.
Give assignment: Othello Concept Pitch (Appendix E)
Day Seven - Friday, January 22 - Concept Practice
Rehearse, discuss, flesh out ideas - work with partner and share with another group
Day Eight - Monday, January 25 - Concept Pitches
Pitches given in class