Teaching The Merchant of Venice and Othello
Too often, students are lectured on "the greatest playwright of all time" without really being taught what Shakespeare has to offer. And they're expected to understand language they can't initially relate to. Yet Shakespeare's gripping narratives and dazzling linguistics provide topics for exploration not only within the context of Shakespeare's 17th century, but for all worlds and eras, including our own.
Shakespeare has influenced most, if not all, Western -- and possibly worldwide -- playwrights. His techniques, themes, characters, and plots are contained in much of what is produced today, from television to Broadway. Critic Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, notes, "Shakespeare teaches us how and what to perceive, and he also instructs us what to sense, and then experience as sensation."
In particular, The Merchant of Venice and Othello both offer many valuable teaching opportunities. The timelessness of Shakespeare's themes -- race, religion, gender, family, marriage, love, and betrayal -- makes these plays as meaningful today as in the era in which they were written. Besides studying the plays themselves, students can learn to think and talk about the profound issues raised by Shakespeare.
Both plays discussed in this guide deal with controversial subjects. The Merchant of Venice explores anti-Semitism, familial strife, and possible homosexuality. Othello involves sexual jealousy, racial tensions, spousal abuse, betrayal, and murder-enough dramatic tension to keep anybody in his or her seat. These charged themes present considerable opportunities for studying historical context, as well as the relevance of the plays (and the themes) to the 21st century. As students learn to interpret for themselves what Shakespeare presents in these plays and the techniques he uses, they will also be learning how such drama reflects history-and their own lives as well.
The Merchant of Venice and Othello offer excellent possibilities for team teaching in literature, history, social studies, and media studies. English classes can explore Shakespeare's elegant literary techniques. They will gain the background knowledge necessary for comparing and contrasting Shakespeare's language and structure with myriad adaptations and other literary works. By learning about the historical context of Shakespeare's plays and applying his themes and scenarios to other eras, students in history and social studies classes will broaden and deepen their understanding of historical issues and events. Media studies students can examine how Shakespeare has influenced many kinds of artistic expression, as well as what the implications are when his works are adapted for various media.
How to Use This Guide
This guide provides summaries of each play, essays, and corresponding student activities. The summaries can be used to introduce students to the plays as they watch the films, as well as for reference after viewing. The essays will help students gain background information and put the plays into context. You may want to download and distribute the essays to students for classroom discussion, after selecting which activities you'll be using. Additional student activities and extensions have been provided in the Web version of this guide.
The first essay, Adapting Shakespeare, explores the timelessness of Shakespeare's themes, as well as the pros and cons of adapting his work. The accompanying activities help students compare and contrast the Masterpiece Theatre adaptations. The second essay, On Race and Religion, examines the portrayal of these controversies in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. The activities invite students to examine these issues further. The Filmmaker's Vision asks students to investigate the techniques and choices used in making the films.
The Masterpiece Theatre Films: Viewing Suggestions
The Merchant of Venice, which premieres on PBS on October 8, 2001, at 9:00 pm (check local listings), is 142 minutes. For classroom viewing you may want to divide the film into the following parts:
about 33 minutes
Begin: Film opening
End: Shylock exits to dine with Bassanio, Jessica vows to marry Lorenzo
about 37 minutes
Begin: Nightclub scene
End: Bassanio finds Portia's portrait in the lead casket
about 47 minutes
Begin: Bassanio reads the "gentle scroll"
End: End of trial; Shylock and Duke exit
about 22 minutes
Begin: Bassanio offers to reward Balthazar (Portia in disguise)
End: Conclusion of film
Othello, which premieres on PBS in Winter 2002, is 104 minutes. For classroom viewing you may want to divide the film into the following parts:
about 32 minutes
Start: Film opening
Stop: A rock comes through Desi's window
about 32 minutes
Begin: Interrogation of Adey by Jago
End: Jago and Roderick talk in Jago's office
about 38 minutes
Begin: Court Scene
End: Conclusion of the film
Please Note: Both the original plays and the Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of The Merchant of Venice and Othello feature controversial elements. Although The Merchant of Venice uses traditional Shakespearean language, it contains possible homosexual themes as well as the character of Shylock, which many audiences, past and present, have objected to as anti-Semitic. Othello is a modern adaptation of the original play, set in a contemporary London police department. It contains strong language, explosive racial tensions, violence, and frank sexual situations. You should preview both films before using them in class. You may also want to send a letter home to parents explaining the unit before you begin.
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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