Friendship in Othello

I’m the first one to say that Shakespeare is not my cup of tea. I managed to get through an English degree at Kenyon College having never taken a formal Shakespeare class (though if you scroll back through to the start of this blog, you might find a post or two about seeing Shakespeare on stage as part of my courses while doing the Kenyon-Exeter program).

I love the bard on stage, but written he’s just really not my thing…so I was not looking forward to the study of Othello. However, looking at it through the lens of friendship breathed new life into the unit.

I started by teaching kids the same things that we did in the NEH Friendship Seminar: with social penetration theory, and the three types of friendship according to Aristotle. I then asked them to think about their own friendships and to classify the different types of relationships that they have. What’s the difference between someone you have breakfast with in the dining hall and someone you invite to the local coffee shop?

We looked at the ways in which a friendship that begins in class because you’re assigned to work on a group project together can evolve into something deeper. We looked at the ways that relationships from back home are different than the ones that these kids were forming at boarding school. And we talked about the types of things that are different in those different relationships. Are the behaviors different? Are the types of language we use different?

After laying the foundation, we started reading the play. I thought that we were going to watch portions of it, perform a few parts and really just gloss over a lot of the text and then dig into the relationships. Well, we did spend a lot of time talking about the relationships, but this group jumped into Shakespeare in a way that I’ve never seen before.

Perhaps it was just that unique magic that happens sometimes in a class, or perhaps is that we started from this place of relationship and friendship and fun. But on the third day of our study of Othello, I walked in and one of the kids said, “Oh, do we get costumes?” And being the teacher that I am, I said, “of course!” and started fashioning some out of various items that were around the room.

My first crack at the costumes was not going to win any artistry awards. I fashioned a flower crown for Desdemona out of some blue latex gloves that were in the room. Othello got a crown out of folded pieces of paper with a name scrawled on it, but the kids put them on and performed.

So I spent the next weekend while I was on duty in the dorm developing Cricut files to cut them actual crowns. The kids were so excited to put them on during the next class. So we kept going like that! And as we read certain lines, the kids would “OOH!” and “AHHH”

Periodically, we paused our reading to talk about the ways that Iago was not being a good friend, or the ways in which he was manipulating people, the ways in which Desdemona and Emilia’s friendship was potentially homoerotic or the ways in which they were just really good friends. We talked about the ways in which all of the things that are unspoken in the play are part of what leads to the problems and what would it look like to speak those things, to give voice to the problems that we have with people that we can work through those friendship disruptions.

Then we looked at various clips. A lot of the clips are ones pulled from my colleague final projects at any age. So we looked at a clip from Gossip Girl. We looked at a clip from Boy Meets World. We looked at a clip from Pen15 and we talked about the disruptions that were there and we talked about ways to repair the relationships. My students had the opportunity to write a letter to repair, to draft the text messages that they might send, to make talking points were a conversation. We brought those into class and discussed which strategies worked and which needed more refinement.

It really changed the way that these kids were thinking about relationships and what was salvageable and helped them to work through, in a safe space outside of their own lives, what it would look like to work through some of these things and rather than sort of sweeping them under the rug.

We went to “stereotype land” and talked about male friendships and female friendships. We talk about ways that if we were living in “stereotype land,” boys would act versus girls. And we thought about what it would look like if we gender bent characters in Othello. Would that change the way that they expressed their relationships? Would that change the way that their friendships evolved? Would Iago and Othello have more opportunities to give voice to their feelings and their discomfort if they were women?

For their final project, kids had a lot of opportunities. I asked in class, “Okay, what do you think we focused on?” And they reflected that back to me, and then I said, “Okay, how do you think you can show me that you learned?” So they develop the scaffolding for the project. I turn those into prompts that aligned with what the other co-teachers were doing, in terms of skills that we were assessing, and that I gave them some options.

  • The kids could gender bend the scene and explore in a meta analysis what it meant to gender bend and how that changed the relationships in the play.
  • They could develop a Buzzfeed quiz that would tell you what kind of friend you are based on your answers, and they had to work in texts from Aristotle several of the others that we looked at in class.
  • They could do a podcast, interviewing their friends about the types of relationships that they had and what they thought of friendship, and then turn that into a paper where they thought about how that mapped onto the playing.

The kids projects were exceptional. Their level of thinking about friendship to clearly deepened, and I think they understood the play better than any group that I’ve worked with before. They played with why Iago makes certain decisions and they understood the problematic nature of Othello’s responses. They understood that leaving things unsaid is one of the central conflicts. Looking at everything through friendship really changed the tenor of our study, and it really allowed us to dig deeper and to make the text a lot more personal for my kids. And I owe all of that to the framing of NEH institute.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: