Adapting Shakespeare: Activities and Investigations
Before selecting one or more of the following activities, you may want to download and distribute the Adapting Shakespeare essay for students to read and discuss. The Web version of this section includes additional activities and extensions to the print version of the teacher's guide.
The Merchant of Venice:
Comedy or Tragedy? | Scene Study | Time and Place | Up-to-Date
Details, Details, Details | Scene Study | Solving the "Problem" of Othello
The Merchant of Venice
Comedy or Tragedy?
What is a comedy? What is a tragedy? Ask students to define these terms and think of films or works of literature that they would place in each genre. Next ask students to do some literary research to define "Shakespearean tragedy" and "Shakespearean comedy." Post all four definitions in the classroom.
Now consider a question that has followed the play over the centuries: is The Merchant of Venice a comedy? Or is it a tragedy? Can it be both?
Select a role: a character from The Merchant of Venice, the film's director, or Shakespeare himself (assign or select roles so that all parts are covered -- duplicates are fine). Looking at the question from inside your role, write an answer to the comedy or tragedy question. Cite specific lines or scenes to support your position.
Now take a stand -- literally! Tape, draw, or imagine a line stretching across the front of the room. The left end point of the line is "comedy," the right end point is "tragedy." In turn, each student walks up to the line, states his or her role and takes a position somewhere along the line while stating a position on the question. Successive students stake out a spot to the left (more "tragic") or to the right (more "comic") of students already in place. Students may change their positions along the line at any time if the arguments offered by others persuade them to move further in one direction or another.
Select a film excerpt and replay it, asking students to follow the corresponding text from the play while viewing. A copy of the text that can be marked up is preferable, so students can strike edited lines and make notes as they watch. Suggested scenes include the following.
How closely does the screenplay follow the original play? Identify lines that were cut. Why do you think these lines were edited out?
Early printed scripts of Shakespeare's plays included only the barest of stage directions; the action you see on stage or screen is the work of the actors and director in a particular production.
Study the performance of one actor in the scene closely.
Time and Place
Trevor Nunn, director of the Masterpiece Theatre production, has said that he wanted to "present the play with a precise sense of foreboding." (Trevor Nunn interview) Describe the set and the costumes chosen for this production. What kind of a society do they suggest? What mood or tone do they create? Why do you think the director decided to change the setting? What year do you think it is? Where is it?
Working with others, propose another setting (time, place, set design, and costumes) for The Merchant of Venice. Can a different setting change the message of the work? Play around with the setting, moving it across time or culture, from the city to the country. Share your ideas as a class. Then discuss: how can directors use setting and costumes to emphasize themes and guide the viewers' responses to the characters and action of the play?
The Merchant of Venice continues to be played today because of its powerful themes and drama. But its plot is antiquated, even offensive to modern viewers. Can this play be modernized, as Andrew Davies did with Othello or as screenwriter Karen McCullah Lutz did with 10 Things I Hate about You? Make an argument for the value of presenting this play to a 21st century audience. What themes, ideas, conflicts, emotions in this scene are relevant today? Why?
As a group or class project, create a plot outline for a new contemporary adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Who would Portia be in 2001? Bassanio? His friends Solanio and Solarino? How would a modern Antonio make his money? Who might Shylock and Jessica be, and how would the other characters respond to them? After you have outlined the new adaptation, write ad copy urging viewers to watch the new version. Try writing, performing, and filming a short scene.
Details, Details, Details
Andrew Davies played freely with the characters and plot of Shakespeare's Othello when he wrote his new screenplay. After viewing Othello, review this list of plot details from the original play. How has Davies adapted each element? Why do you think he made the changes he did?
Make a side-by-side comparison of Andrew Davies' adapted screenplay and Shakespeare's original text. Divide students into small groups and assign them one of the two following scenes to study closely. Begin by reading the text of the play, then view the film excerpt. Repeat the sequence. Students can create a two-column chart to record responses to the discussion prompts for each scene.
Brabantio (Brabant) meets with Othello and Desdemona (Dessie) after their marriage.
(about 23 minutes into the film): I, ii, 80-108, I, iii, 70-334
(about 44 minutes into the film): III, iii, 70-298
Solving the "Problem" of Othello
Over the years Othello has left critics and viewers of the play wondering and debating: Does Shakespeare provide Iago with enough human motivation for the malevolent acts he commits? Is it plausible that the intelligent, noble Othello could fall so quickly into Iago's trap, turning from blissful newlywed to murderer in three days?
Challenge students to find their own answers to these critical questions (if students have not read the play, refer them to the plot summary or to a scene-by-scene summary from another source). Is the play deeply flawed, or is it disturbing and challenging because of its "problems"? Do the play's problems provoke you to think deeply about human nature, or would they be better "fixed" by a rewrite?
It can be argued that Andrew Davies takes the role of problem-solver as a screenwriter. Direct students back to his film. How has Davies changed the plot to address the "problems" of Othello? Does the screenplay provide satisfactory answers to the two questions above? Why or why not?
Teaching The Merchant of Venice and Othello
The Merchant of Venice: Plot Summary | Before Viewing
Othello: Plot Summary | Adapting Shakespeare
Adapting Shakespeare: Activities | On Race and Religion
On Race and Religion: Activities | The Filmmaker's Vision
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