Rollover Information
About the Series Schedule The Archive Learning Resources The American Collection Home Search Shop
Links and Bibliography The Forum Teacher's Guide Russell Baker Story Synopsis Drama to Film Who's Who Who was Shakespeare? Essays + Interviews Masterpiece Theatre Othello
Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 9 links]

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.

Scene Study
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.

  • Antonio and Shylock negotiate the loan and bond
    (about 11 minutes into the film): I, iii, 40-194

  • Shylock and Jessica
    (about 22 minutes into the film): II, iii, 1-15; II, v, 1-58

  • Bassanio learns that Antonio's bond is forfeit
    (about 1 hour, 17 minutes into the film): III, ii, 252-339

  • Trial scene: Portia stops Shylock
    (about 1 hour, 48 minutes into the film): IV, i, 317-418

  • Final scene: Bassanio's entrance
    (about 2 hours, 6 minutes into the film): V, i, 145-329

How closely does the screenplay follow the original play? Identify lines that were cut. Why do you think these lines were edited out?

  • Identify lines in the scene whose meaning were unclear to you as a modern viewer. Read these lines aloud in class.

  • Russell Jackson, an advisor to many Shakespearean film adaptations, observes that the challenge for modern actors is "to play the lines so that they seem [normal] for the characters and the society on the screen, so that what is strange will seem forceful and rich." Replay a speech with difficult language. In your judgment, did the actors meet the challenge?

  • Why stick with the language of a play written in Early Modern English? Rewrite the scene you studied in modern English. What is gained? What is lost? Why do you think the filmmakers decided not to rewrite lines?

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.
  • What difference do a few stage directions make? As you watch, make note of the significant actions, gestures, and movements in the scene and note them in the script.

  • Now stage a dramatic reading in three ways: with no stage action (just stand there); with the movements and gestures in this adaptation; with another set of actions improvised while reading, trying for a different effect or interpretation.

Study the performance of one actor in the scene closely.

  • What is the most important line the actor delivers in this scene? How is the line delivered? Memorize the line and work with it out loud, trying to deliver it in as many different ways as you can (for example, with different emotions, at a different pitch or sound level, emphasizing different words). If you asked the actor what he or she was trying to do or to show in this scene, what would the actor's answer be?

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?

  • Othello promotes Cassio over Iago.

  • Othello is sent to Cyprus to fight Turkish invaders.

  • The Turkish fleet founders; Othello has no battle to fight.

  • Othello has lived his life in tents -- he is not a part of the Venetian social world.

  • Iago gets Cassio drunk.

  • Desdemona pleads with Othello on Cassio's behalf.

  • Iago creates false proof of Desdemona's unfaithfulness.

  • Iago kills Roderigo.

  • Iago's plot is unmasked; he is taken away to be punished.

Shakespeare would probably not be surprised that Othello has been adapted; he did the same thing himself when he wrote his play, which was based on a 1565 Italian novella by Giraldi Cinthio. Shakespeare developed characters, themes, and language in his own style for his own purpose (significantly, turning Othello from a villain into a tragic hero). Review the differences you have noted between the play and the new adaptation of it:

  • What did Davies have to change when he set his screenplay in 2001?

  • How do Davies' changes serve to develop the characters in a new way?

  • How do his changes restate or reexamine the themes of Shakespeare's play?

  • What contemporary questions and issues does Davies' screenplay explore?

  • What do you think Shakespeare would think of this new version of Othello? Write a short note that Shakespeare might send to Davies after seeing his film.

Scene Study
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
  • How closely does the screenplay follow the language, tone, and emotions of the scene from the play?

  • How does Brabant's reaction to Dessie's marriage compare to Brabantio's?

  • How is Dessie's relationship to her father similar to or different from Desdemona's?

  • Compare Othello's attitude toward Brabantio to John Othello's attitude toward Brabant. How are they similar?

  • How is Othello's race important to each scene? How is it expressed? In which version of Othello does race play a larger role?

Iago (Jago) plants the seeds of doubt
(about 44 minutes into the film): III, iii, 70-298
  • How closely does the screenplay follow the language, tone, and emotions of the scene from the play?

  • How does Iago/Jago introduce doubt into Othello's mind?

  • How does Othello react to Iago/Jago's suggestions?

  • What is similar about the relationship between the two pairs of men? What is different?

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?

Teacher's Guide:
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
Resources | Order the Teacher's Guide

Essays + Interviews | Shakespeare + More | Who's Who
Drama to Film | Story Synopsis | Russell Baker
Teacher's Guide | The Forum | Links and Bibliography

Home | About The Series | The American Collection | The Archive
Schedule & Season | Feature Library | eNewsletter | Book Club
Learning Resources | Forum | Search | Shop | Feedback

WGBH Logo PBS logo


Masterpiece is sponsored by: