Jenny Beekley is an English teacher at Danvers High School in Massachusetts. She teaches both general track and honors English classes. She has participated in a summer grant program at The Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
What's On for Today and Why
Today students will look at The History and Description of Africa by Leo Africanus, a primary source that existed at the time Shakespeare wrote Othello. This text, which includes a description of African people, was translated into English in 1600 and was widely circulated. Students will examine the Africanus text and note assumptions, tones, and images used to describe Africans. The class will then turn to Othello and examine Othello's descriptions of himself in the play.
This exercise will expose students to the ideas and principles regarding Africans that existed during Shakespeare's time, providing a cultural context in which they can analyze Othello's feelings about himself as an individual. Students will use both the Africanus and the Shakespeare texts as evidence for a character analysis essay of Othello. Because this exercise is intended to function both as a review of the play and a work session for the development of a formal paper, it will take three days to complete.
What You Need
Folger edition of Othello
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Handout #1 ("The Descripton of Leo Africanus")
Handout #2 ("Checklist for Character Analysis Paper on Othello")
Handout #1 Africanus
Handout #2 Character Analysis
What To Do
Students will have finished reading Othello. Students should have been informed at the beginning of the play that a formal paper, involving citations from that text as well as a primary source from Shakespeare's time, will be required.
DAY 1: EXPLORING A PRIMARY SOURCE
1. Print sufficient numbers of copies of Handout #1, "The Description of Leo Africanus" (see "What You Need," below) and distribute to your students. The handout contains an excerpt from The History and Description of Africa. Tell students that the text of the handout is a modern transcription of Africanus' text, translated into English by John Pory around 1600. It was considered an accurate, well-researched reference work by the people of Shakespeare's day. It is conceivable that writers of that time, perhaps even Shakespeare himself, would have referred to this source for background knowledge in constructing a character such as Othello.
2. Divide students into five groups. Explain that they will spend the period reading and marking up their copies of the Africanus text. They should be looking for passages that describe the traits, behaviors, and perspectives of Africans, specifically Moors. In addition, they should consider the tone the author uses, whether he is objective in his descriptions, and what his purpose in writing such a text might be. They should come away from this class period with extensive notes marking the excerpt as well as additional notes that might help them in their final papers.
DAY 2: EXPLORING OTHELLO
3. At the beginning of the next class period, have students return to their small groups and pull out their copies of the Africanus text. They should also get out their copies of Othello.
4. Assign each of the five groups one act of the play. Instruct students that they will be looking for Othello's descriptions of himself. Remind students that the statements that Othello makes to other characters can also provide information about how he feels about himself. Students should keep a list of quotations that they find. Tell students that they need to turn in one copy of their group's findings at the end of the class.
DAY 3: CLASS DISCUSSION
5. Before the next class period, you will need to photocopy each group's work on quotations from Othello. Collate and make a packet to give to each student at the beginning of class. Arrange all the chairs in a large circle to encourage class discussion.
7. Tell students that this discussion should draw connections between Shakespeare and Africanus, considering what each text might tell us about the character of Othello. Remind students that this discussion will also serve as a review session before the character analysis paper on Othello. At this time, you may want to distribute a checklist for the final copy of their paper (Handout #2, "Checklist for Character Analysis Paper on Othello," below).
8. Ask if students have any questions about the Africanus text. Let students direct the conversation to the areas that they find most puzzling or pertinent to the construction of their papers. Some suggestions:
The purpose of Africanus' description (of course, this issue requires guessing, but it is important to consider)
At the end of the discussion, students should have an idea of how they will complete their character analysis papers, with a strong sense of how they will incorporate examples from the Africanus text and the play and how these sources will function as evidence to help them prove their thesis statements.
The tone of Africanus' text (What did his attitude towards the subject seem to be? Unbiased, critical, contemptuous, friendly?)
Specific examples that Africanus gave (What were they? Why might they have been included?
The tone of Othello's remarks about himself (Were they confident? Self-critical?)
Specific examples from Othello's own words (What does he tell us about himself? What made him choose to reveal the information he did?)
Connections between the Africanus description and Othello (Were there similar attitudes found in both texts? Were there examples that bore resemblance to each other?)
How Did It Go?
You can check student progress throughout by observing them during their small group work and class discussion. Did students engage with both texts, focusing on passages that they believed to be important to the assignment? Were they talking in their small groups about what specific examples in the text meant? During class discussion, were students concerned about connecting the Africanus text with the quotes they pulled from Othello? The most significant evaluation will be that of the final paper. The checklist handout, with few adaptations, could function as a rubric from which to grade the character analysis papers.
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.