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"Let all of his complexion choose me so": Elizabethan Perceptions of Africans



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James Clarke Hook. Othello's description of Desdemona. Oil on canvas, ca. 1852.

 
December 2005
 
Babou Ido teaches English at Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School in New York City.
 

Plays/Scenes Covered
The Merchant of Venice 2.1, 2.7
 
What's On for Today and Why

This play will give students a glimpse into the early modern period’s negative perceptions and stereotypes of human beings of African descent. Students will use information from a primary source to interpret these elements in the play. 


This lesson will take two class periods.


 
What You Need

Folger edition of The Merchant of Venice
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts


Documents:
Primary Source Title Page
Pages 88-89
Pages 90-91
 
 
What To Do

1. Divide students into groups. Distribute the below handouts, from Pomponius Mela's Concerninge the situation of the worlde. (For more lesson ideas using this primary source, click here .) Instruct students to write a summary of Pomponius Mela’s text, including facts or clues relevant to the Elizabethan perception of Africa and Africans. 

 

2. Have groups report their interpretations to the class.  Have students cite and discuss a passage from the primary source that clearly provides evidence of their findings.
 
3. Have each group read The Merchant of Venice 2.1 and 2.7 to study the dialogue between the Prince of Morocco and Portia. Have students consider the following questions: What type of person is Portia? How do the Prince of Morocco and Portia feel toward one another?

 

4. Have students write one or two paragraphs examining Shakespeare’s representation of the Prince of Morocco, using specific examples from the text.  They should also incorporate information from the primary source into their discussion. 


 
How Did It Go?

Did students understand the connection between the primary source and the play? Did they recognize any rationale behind Elizabethans' perceptions? Did the play broaden their understanding of the experiences of Africans in Europe during the early modern period?


 


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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  Common Core State Standards

There are no standards associated with this Lesson Plan.
 
 
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