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"How to choose a good Wife from a bad...": Were Othello and Desdemona doomed from the start?

Teachers' Rating:
  18 ratings

Alexander Niccholes. A discourse of marriage and wiving. London, 1615

February 2004
Annmarie Kelly Harbaugh teaches English at West Ashley High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

Plays/Scenes Covered
Othello. This lesson works best after students have read the entire play.
What's On for Today and Why
It is easy to reduce Othello and Desdemona's failed marriage to Iago's scheming and Othello's jealousy. But the rules of choosing and keeping a wife were slightly different in 1615, according to Alexander Niccholes's book, "A discourse, of marriage and wiving: and of the greatest Mystery therin contained: How to choose a good Wife from a bad...," and it can be useful for students to examine Othello with an eye toward these standards.

This lesson will take one 50-minute class period.
What You Need

Folger edition of Othello
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

A Discourse of Marriage
What To Do
1. Either for homework or as a class, have students read the handout, "Certaine Precepts to be observed either in Wiving or Marriage" from "A discourse, of marriage and wiving." Be sure to explain to students how to read the document (i.e. how to translate the various letters). You may need to give them this key:
v = u
u = v
i = j
f = s
vv = w

2. Ask students to circle at least 3 rules applicable to Othello and Desdemona's relationship.

3. In groups of 2 or 3, have students locate and record evidence of each of these precepts in the play.

4. Ask students to find at least one precept on the handout that is applicable to Iago and Emilia's relationship. They should find textual evidence for this as well.

5. As a class, have students share their findings. You might want to ask students to compare the two marriages, highlighting similarities and differences.

6. For homework, and with these precepts in mind, have students write journals in which they explore their own precepts for marriage. What does it take these days for a marriage to work? Are any of these rules still applicable? You may want to have them discuss this with respect to their own parents.
How Did It Go?
Did students verbalize their difficulty reading an "old" text? ("Why do all these "s's" look like "f's"?) Did they move beyond that grumbling into deciphering and remarking on the rules for marriage? Have they begun to at least question the responsibility of the married characters in this play? Were they intrigued by the timelessness of the rules of love? If you got high school boys to talk about relationships, you've done good work here.

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.

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