Othello, a revered general of the Venetian army, has his newlywed wife meet him in Cyprus where he’s stationed. But while there his ensign Iago, embittered by jealousy, plots Othello’s tragic downfall.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known by his pen name, O. Henry, was an American writer. His short story, “The Guilty Party,” published in 1909, is a tragic story about a girl named Liz who is engaged to be married, overcome with jealousy, and then driven to violence.
Have students read this short story, prior to reading Othello, in order to generate a discussion on culpability. What case does the story make for the father’s guilt? Although more complex, in its basic form Shakespeare portrays Othello’s guilt similarly to how O. Henry portrays Liz’s guilt. Do students believe that the wrongdoings of one person are culpable for the wrongdoings of another? Do the influences of others make us less culpable for our actions?
Reverend H.T. Johnson wrote this poem in response to Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.”
Introduce this text after students have read Act 3, scene 3, in order to analyze how race is addressed in the play. Overt racism expresses itself in acts of hatred and is exemplified in racist comments such as the ones Iago makes. In this poem, Johnson is commenting on a kind of racism that expresses itself in the patriarchal attitude of white men who believe it is their moral obligation to rule over black men. Ask students to compare and contrast these forms of racism.
Gloria Steinem (1934-present) is an American feminist, journalist, author, and social-political activist. She gained national recognition as a leader of the “Second Wave” feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. On May 6th, 1970, Gloria Steinem stood before the Senate and delivered this speech, advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and seeking to dispel myths about women.
Have students read this text after they have completed Act 4, scene 3, in order to generate a discussion on the role of women in the play. How do Desdemona and Emilia differ in their beliefs about how women should act with their husbands? In her testimony before the Senate hearings, which inequalities between men and women does Steinem observe? In comparison, what are the inequalities between the sexes that Emilia observes? How does Steinem’s response to these inequalities compare with Emilia’s? Commenting on the play as a whole, how does inequality between the sexes contribute to the dynamics between Desdemona and Othello?
In this passage, Bacon discusses the notion of revenge, why some seek it, and the consequences of this fixation.
Introduce this text after students have read Act 4, in order to discuss how revenge is revealed as a motive for Iago’s actions, as well as how Othello also acts out of revenge. What does Bacon argue is man’s motivation for revenge, what does he profit, and ultimately what does he gain by walking away from revenge? Are Bacon’s themes about revenge consistent with the themes in “Othello”? Analyze how Iago, Brabantio, and Othello are all motivated by revenge. Whom do they think they are wronged by? What do they think they will achieve by hurting those who have hurt them?
In “Advice to the ‘Newly Married Lady’” (1808), a doctor from the 19th century advises new wives to defer to their husbands.
Have students read Jennings' advice prior to reading Act 5, scene 2 in the play. Jennings’ advice to wives is to defer to their husbands and accommodate their needs. As students read the play, ask them to consider whether Desdemona acts in accordance with Jennings’ advice. What choices does Desdemona make? What are the consequences of her choices? Does the play suggest she is a victim who suffers for making the right choices or does the play suggest her choices were poor, and make her culpable in part for the consequences that follow?
Loving another person and accepting love from another person can sometimes be a very painful experience. In his article, “Why Do We Hate Love,” Robert Firestone, Ph.D. explains the psychology behind this phenomenon.
Introduce this text after students have read Act 5, scene 3, in order to analyze how love is addressed in the play. Firestone writes that being loved arouses anxiety because it leaves a person feeling more vulnerable; he also writes that people will reject being loved if they have accepted a negative self concept that includes their belief that they are unloveable. Ask students to use Firestone’s theories to discuss whether or not Othello is unwilling to believe Desdemona’s affections for him because his views are built on his experience of being different, rejected, and unloved? How could this theory account for why Othello is more willing to believe Iago’s lies about Desdemona liking Cassio, than anything Desdemona has to say?
In this article from the Monitor on Psychology, researcher Melissa Dittmann explores the circumstances that drive people to commit immoral acts.
Introduce this text after students have finished reading Othello. Have students read this text to initiate a conversation about the psychological motivations that lead characters in the play to violent actions. Do the lessons Zimbardo offers about “how situations can foster evil” help explain what led to the violence in Othello? What other psychological factors underlie the characters’ motives that led them to violent actions, especially as Othello can be understood as a ‘good person who does a bad thing’?