Othello is a tale of love, jealousy, murder, war, and betrayal. It’s a great story, with enough action to motivate students who find the language difficult to struggle through it, and poetry that makes reading the play a pleasure.
In the play, Othello, a war hero visiting Venice, falls in love with and marries Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman. They run off and marry against the wishes and without the knowledge of her father, Brabantio. Iago, passed over for promotion in favor of Michael Cassio, sets out to destroy Othello. He uses other people to accomplish his ends, slyly planting ideas in their heads. He has his wife, Emilia, steal a handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona and plants it on Cassio, then uses it to persuade Othello that Desdemona is being unfaithful to him with Cassio. In a jealous rage, Othello kills Desdemona. When Emilia reveals Iago’s plot and it becomes clear that Desdemona was innocent, Othello kills himself.
Begin by reading the play. This is a play most suitable for older students, so we generally assign it as homework, encouraging students to use Google and YouTube as resources to help them grasp the story. We watch a few pivotal scenes in the classroom and read through the play together, discussing each scene and acting out important sections to make sure everyone has gotten the story.
We follow up with these lessons:
Get to know the characters
There are eight major characters in the play:
- The Duke of Venice
Write the names of these characters on the board and elicit descriptions of them from the class. Adjectives like these may turn up in the discussion:
This is a good opportunity to work on choosing the best adjective out of many choices, and on getting the clearest possible idea of the meaning of abstract characteristics.
Ask for volunteers for each of the main characters and have them act out the bare bones of the story. We let students simply gather at the front of the classroom, move into the various groupings, and explain what happened, saying things like, “Roderigo got mad at Iago, but then Iago got around him again.” The object here is simply to make the complex relationships among the characters clear.
Have each character gather helpers from the “audience” so the class is divided into eight groups. Each group should then choose a line or brief speech that really shows the nature of their character. Have the original volunteer or a new volunteer from the group read the line(s) and explain why the group chose that passage to show the essential nature of the character.
We follow up with a writing assignment, asking for an essay on one of the characters. Ask for a clear thesis about the character, supported by specific lines from the play as well as the student’s thoughts and experiences of the emotions and relationships associated with that character.
Othello is all about jealousy, “the green-eyed monster that mocks the meat it feeds on.”
- Iago is jealous of Cassio, whom Othello gave the job that Iago wanted. This comes up in the first scene of the play.
- Iago may also be jealous of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona, because she takes the time and attention that Othello used to have for Iago. Eamonn Walker’s essay “Othello in Love,” in Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors, and Directors , goes into this idea thoroughly. We like to read this essay in class in preparation for the students’ essays on characters (in the lesson idea above).
- Othello’s jealousy is the most obvious in the play — through Iago’s manipulation, Othello comes to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio.
- Roderigo is jealous of Othello because he himself wanted Desdemona, and is able to be persuaded by Iago that he could have Desdemona if Othello were out of the picture.
- Bianca is jealous over Cassio, though she doesn’t know whose handkerchief he brings to her. As a courtesan, she may know that Cassio won’t really marry her, but she continues to hope that he will.
Watch and read this scene:
Use No Fear Shakespeare if students need further support in reading the scene.
Note all the ways that Iago puts the idea that Desdemona is unfaithful into Othello’s head, while pretending to be a good friend to Othello. Identify the tricks he plays, such as saying that Cassio is honest repeatedly in an insincere voice, or making Othello drag his suspicions out of him instead of telling him directly.
Keeping in mind that the accusations against Desdemona are false, ask students to role play a similar scene in modern times and in their own context.
Have students search the text of the play to find other places where this kind of manipulation takes place.
Discuss whether it is the fault of Iago or of those he manipulates when they become jealous and behave badly. Look at the three couples in the play: Othello/Desdemona, Cassio/Bianca, Iago/Emilia. Notice all the relationships among them, and between these individuals and the other characters in the play. Is all the jealousy manufactured by Iago? Does the play offer lessons about jealousy?
Would have, could have, should have
Regardless of Iago’s manipulations, Othello and Desdemona do run off together and get married. In the 1600s — and even today — running off secretly together rather than openly courting and planning their wedding was bound to upset people.
It is usually assumed that Brabantio, who was so sure that his daughter couldn’t love Othello that he assumes she must have been stolen away with witchcraft or drugs, would never have allowed Desdemona to marry Othello. Othello is black while Desdemona and Brabantio are white, he is an outsider, and he has no family background to equal that of Desdemona’s family.
However, Othello is also a friend of Brabantio’s, welcome in his home, and widely admired. When Othello and Desdemona talk with Brabantio in front of the Duke, they are respectful, loving, and persuasive. What if they had behaved this way from the beginning, talking with Brabantio and helping him get used to the idea? What if Othello had courted Desdemona in the way which was appropriate in their time and place? Could this story have had a happy ending?
As a class, identify the points at which things might have been different — if Emilia had refused to steal the handkerchief, if Othello had realized that Iago wasn’t really his friend, if Desdemona had gone for help when Othello began to be cruel to her…
Have students choose one of those points and write a new ending for the play. Act out or perform as reader’s theater some or all of the alternate endings.
Would the play have been as powerful with a happy ending? Would it have been a better play? Discuss the idea of a tragedy and why (or whether) people continue to enjoy tragedies.
- NoFear Shakespeare’s Othello
- Folger resources on Othello, with some very interesting historical resources
- Oh, Hello, Othello has step by step lessons for each act.
- Images of Othello webquest
- Shakespeare’s Othello and the Power of Language from EdSitement
- A printable PDF lesson from Shakespeare in the Ruins