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“Chaos Is Come Again”:  Deception and the Breakdown of Language in Othello



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Othello

 
October 2012
 
Kevin J. Costa teaches English and Drama at McDonogh School, Owings Mills, MD
 

Plays/Scenes Covered
Othello, 1.2, 1.3, 2.3, 3.3, 3.4, 4.1, 4.2, 5.2

 


 
What's On for Today and Why

In this lesson, students will explore Othello’s transformation from a confident, successful general to a jealous, murdering husband as a result of Iago’s deception.

Students will examine this transformation as it is reflected in the form and style of Othello’s language use at key points in the play.

As a result, students will deepen their understanding of the way that a character’s emotions, psychological state, and understanding of the world is captured in the form and content of what he or she says.

This lesson can be used as a summary exercise to draw conclusions about Othello’s transformation. 

This lesson should take two to three fifty-minute periods.

 


 
What You Need

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

Folger’s YouTube Video, “Deception in Othello

Chart Paper

An open space


Images:


 

 
What To Do

DAY 1

Screen the Folger YouTube video, “Deception in Othello,”and lead a discussion of key ideas raised by the Folger Theatre team. What are the students’ thoughts about deception in the play? Are they convinced that a person could be so wholly deceived in the way that Othello is? And Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia for that matter?

Review the section from 2:45-4:10 when the discussion turns to the deception of Othello. Solicit responses from students about Othello’s jealousy and how he is totally “driven by deceit,” and that Othello is “insecure” because marriage and jealousy are new to him. Finally, lead a discussion about Owiso Odera’s claim that Othello “believes the best in people.” Is this true?

Take note of where and with what students agree and disagree. Offer the idea that many of Shakespeare’s plays are about people who think the world works according to a fixed set of rules only to find out that this is not the case. The drama that ensues is this very recognition by the main character(s) of the play. (A strong example is Brutus in Julius Caesar whose idealism allows him to think of Caesar’s assassination as a symbolic cleansing of tyranny. When Mark Antony spins it, however, Brutus looks little better than a murderer. Brutus is dead by the end of the play.)

Divide students into groups of four (you may need to adjust based on your class size) and assign each group a scene to work on. The scenes for this lesson include: 1.21.32.33.33.44.14.2, 5.2

Once groups are assigned, have them read through the scene together (for some groups, this may take a chunk of class time and may need to continue to Day 2). They may read the scene part to part around a circle or they may cast parts -- they can work this out.

After a first read around, students should write on a piece of chart paper Othello’s words and phrases that stuck out to them. Did any words recur? Does he have a particular phrase he likes? Does he ask more questions than he makes statements, or is it vice-versa?

What adjectives do students come up with to characterize Othello’s lines? Do his words flow? Are his sentences choppy? Does he seem relaxed, anxious, defensive? Have them free-associate while focused on Othello’s language.

Once this is done, students should brainstorm a “headline” about Othello’s language -- a single sentence or bullet point that captures the essence of Othello’s words. If students struggle with this, that’s okay -- there is no right way to create this headline. The very conversation about it is a valuable exercise in close reading for the form and content of Othello’s speech. If students feel strongly that one headline won’t work, two may be admitted (3.3, for instance, represents lots of different emotions in Othello, so this might require different headlines).

DAY 2

Once the headline(s) is/are done, have each student then search out a line or two each from their scene that illustrates and supports the headline.

When they each have a short piece of text, then each person in the group should come together and stage the line by making a short scene or tableaux that they will share with the class. Each member of the group should be involved in each person’s line as an actor or tableaux participant. As a group, they will stage as many scenes as they have participants. For background on how to create tableaux, please refer to the following video prepared for Shakespeare in American Life.

DAY 3

Once everyone is prepared, have them present their tableaux and/or scenes to the class.

At the conclusion of the presentations, facilitate a conversation about what students discovered in their reading, preparing, and performing of the text. Is Othello’s journey registered in his language? What did students discover about the words he uses? What do they reveal about him?

 


 
How Did It Go?
  • Did students understand and feel the connections between Othello’s emotional state and the form and style of his langauge?
  • Did students find contrasts between Othello’s language in different parts of the play?
  • Were students able to draw some conclusions about how the style and form of Shakespeare’s verse - and of those moments, perhaps, where Shakespeare shifts a
    character into prose - reflect a character’s psychological state?
  • Did students, as a result of this exercise, engage in a close reading of the play’s language?

 

This lesson will work with a number of other characters whose worlds are turned upside down and where we can see their disillusion reflected in the style and form of their language:

  • Titus, Titus Andronicus
  • Richard II, Richard II
  • Claudius, Hamlet
  • Brutus, Julius Caesar
  • King Lear, King Lear
  • Timon, Timon of Athens
  • Coriolanus, Coriolanus
  • Angelo, Measure for Measure
  • Leontes, The Winter’s Tale

 


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

RL.6-12.1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
 
 


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