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Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 9 links]

Race and Religion: Activities and Investigations

Before selecting one or more of the following activities, you may want to download and distribute the On Race and Religion essay for students to read and discuss. This online version of this section includes additional activities and extensions that do not appear in the print version of the teacher's guide.

Playing Against Type | The Outsider | Changing Places | Character Interviews
Shakespeare in the News | Old Tales for a New Generation

Playing Against Type
What is a stereotype? How do stereotypes originate? In Shakespeare's world, the stereotype of Jews was viciously negative; similarly, Othello, an African, would have been viewed as inferior. But do Shakesepeare's plays encourage or challenge the widespread anti-Semitism and racism of the time?

Before answering, consider other examples. Identify characters in television, film, and literature that are built on a stereotype (of age, class, region, ethnicity, race, etc.). List them on the board.

  • Which characters are stereotypes that reinforce negative images? Label them.

  • Which characters stretch or break out of their stereotypes? How do they do it? What message or lesson about stereotypes do the characters deliver?

  • What role do stereotypes play in art? Should they remain or be a part of newly-created art?

  • Read the essay On Race and Religion. Then think about Shakespeare's Othello and Shylock. Does each character reinforce or challenge the stereotype an Elizabethan viewer would have brought into the theater? If so, how?

  • Is the Othello in Andrew Davies' adaptation a stereotype? Why or why not? Do other characters see him as one?

  • How do you think a modern viewer's response to stereotypes differs from viewers in Shakespeare's time?

  • Do you conclude that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic and/or racist? Why or why not?

The Outsider
Draw a set of concentric circles on a piece of paper. The circles represent the society in which Othello or The Merchant of Venice is set. Place the main characters from the play in position within the concentric circles to show the relationship of each to the mainstream society in the center.

  • Compare your diagram with others in your class. Do you see any differences? Discuss your reasoning and try to reach a consensus on where each character should be plotted. Who is an "insider"? Who is an "outsider"? What are the relationships between the characters in the center and at the edges? Try making a similar chart placing characters based on how sympathetic they are and compare. What do you see?

  • Where did you position Othello and Shylock? Why do you think Shakespeare placed these characters from the outer circle of society at the center of action in his plays? What is the role of the "outsider" in Othello and The Merchant of Venice?

  • Now think beyond Shakespeare: what can an "outsider" character see that other characters cannot? What can he or she show or teach us? Look back on your own experience and recall a time when you were the "outsider." Draw a concentric circle diagram, plotting where you and others stood during the time you recall. Write a short personal essay telling about that time.

Changing Places
How much do race and religion explain characters' behavior and the action on the screen? Play a "what if?" game to find out. Write the name of each major character on an index card and place them in a stack. Create two more cards: for Othello, one labeled "black," one labeled "white"; for The Merchant of Venice, "Christian" and "Jewish." Create teams of three or four students. In turn, each team draws one card from the character pile and one of the two category cards. For example, this might yield "Portia" and "Jewish" or "Desdemona/Dessie" and "black"-what if Portia had been Jewish? What if Dessie were black? The team confers and offers a new summary of the play, an act, or a scene under the "what if" scenario. Return and reshuffle the cards after each group draws.

Character Interviews
In groups of three, identify a pair of characters from Othello and/or The Merchant of Venice who have something in common: two women; two "outsiders"; two characters in love; two characters who feel despair, jealousy, or another emotion; two winners; two losers; etc. One student will play each character part and the third will be the interviewer. Together compose a series of questions for the interviewer to pose, designed to explore, compare, and contrast what the two characters have in common. Have the character players answer without a script.

Shakespeare in the News
The essay On Race and Religion argues that the themes and conflicts in The Merchant of Venice and Othello are still important today. Find evidence for this argument by reading newspaper articles and news Web sites for current events that recall any of the themes, conflicts, or characters from either play. Look for tragic heroes, comic endings, items about jealousy, power, marriage, financial problems, racial and religious tension. Print or clip the news pieces. Then return to the plays or the screenplay and locate a quote to accompany each article. Mount the article and the quote together for display.

Old Tales for a New Generation
Why read books written before you were born? Why do we still read and watch Shakespeare? One simple answer is that there are conflicts, desires, and dilemmas addressed in works of the past that are as much a part of our lives as they were a hundred or a thousand years ago. We continue to read the old stories; we also create new stories that retell the old ones again and again.

Test out this thesis: brainstorm a list of ten works you know well that were created by an earlier generation -- myths, folktales, legends, epics, novels, song lyrics. You might start your list with tales you recall from childhood, favorite books, works you read in school last year, or "oldies" music. For each work, identify the central idea, issue, or conflict of the work.

Of the ten works on your list, which ones are about ideas or themes that are relevant to your life and your generation? Circle them. Are there any works within the list that tell similar stories or explore similar themes? Draw a line connecting them. Look for similarities between your list and those of others. What ideas or conflicts come up again and again?

Add another layer to the storytelling tradition: take the bare bones of the plot from one of these works and imagine a more modern version of this tale. Provide a title and plot summary. How do you need to change the story so that it speaks to your generation or comments on your own time?

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

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