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Putting Out the Light

"Please just let us watch the whole thing!" my students begged when I stopped the senate scene of "Othello" with Laurence Fishburne. Instead, we watched the same scene from "Othello" with Laurence Olivier. The students noted the differences between the actors, the costumes, the sets, and the props - the production elements - to which they are already very much attuned. As we continued our study of "Othello," the students demonstrated a continued interest in film versions of the play. One Friday, Cameron and Isaac, two tenth-grade boys who had the lowest grades in their class, informed me that their plans for that evening included renting "O", a recent adaptation of the tragedy, set in a high school. They came back Monday explaining what they liked and didn't like about it. Many other students rented "Othello" and "O", and the films became a regular part of our discussions of the text. Encouraged that my students were interested in hearing this same story over and over and in seeing different interpretations of it, I decided to progress further into a study of film and take them to the next step - analyzing film techniques such as camera angle, lighting, and sound.

First, we enjoyed a day of learning film terms by using paper "cameras" and my rolling chair as a dolly. Then the students were ready to put what they learned to the test. I assigned students specific elements to look for and played Act 5, scene 2, where Othello finally confronts and kills Desdemona. For the first clip, I used the 1952 version directed by and starring Orson Welles. After a discussion of the elements in that clip, we returned to the 1995 version. Armed with terms to explain what they saw, my students delved deeper into the film and articulated their understanding of the text. Watching clips that only lasted a few minutes sparked a discussion that lasted an entire class period and that demonstrated the students' knowledge of film techniques as well as theme and character development and motivation.

"The way Othello was shot at a low angle really shows his power over Desdemona in this scene. He has all of the information and she has no idea what is going on."

"And the use of side lighting makes him look really evil!"

"I don't see him as being evil - he is not a bad person. It is Iago's fault that he turns out like this. He was just manipulated."

By comparing different versions the students were able to see how the same text can have multiple interpretations.

"The Welles' version looks like a horror movie. I think it shows how completely obsessed he has become."

"You can't really feel bad for someone in a horror movie. I think we are supposed to feel a little sorry for Othello, so I think the Fishburne version is more realistic and makes him seem more human."

Including comparative film clips and teaching film terms in my "Othello" unit engaged my students and enhanced their analytical skills as well as their enjoyment of the play. (See handouts 1 and 2) Most of my students listed this unit as their favorite of the year and one student said it was "much better than just reading." I didn't remind her that we had read the play twice - once with the lights on and once with the lights out.

About the Author

Sarah Kirkpatrick teaches tenth grade English in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Handouts

Comparing Film Version of Act 5, scene 2 of "Othello"
Comparison Chart
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