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Gender and Othello

15 May

When I am teaching Shakespearean drama I often wish that I was able to treat my students to multiple performances, each offering a different perspective on the play.  Why?  Because each casting decision, each dramatic decision offers insight into the play’s enduring relevance and values.

The value of performance is underscored in a recent review about a production of Othello in which the eponymous protagonist was recast as a lesbian.  If we view Othello’s characterisation as the Moor as a mere shorthand for communicating his difference, the re-imagining of Othello as a lesbian does not change much.  After all, on this reading, lesbian and Moor are both equally effective synonyms for ‘Other’.  If, however, Othello’s characterisation is about more than difference, if the colour of Othello’s skin is as central to Othello as Shylock’s religion is in The Merchant of Venice, then maybe recasting Othello as a lesbian matters greatly.   Maybe it changes everything.

The author of the review is of the view that changing the gender (let alone the orientation) of Othello matters greatly:

“In changing the gender of Othello – making the character … a woman who has excelled in what is clearly very much a man’s world – the stakes are raised, and the evening speaks to present-day workplace politics. Iago is the “ancient” who feels resentment at a woman’s success…”

Her view, it seems, is that the shift in characterisation modernises the text such that it reflects the context in which we live, offering a certain universality to the underlying interpersonal conflict.  This would be an interesting idea to discuss with my class – I what they see in Othello and how closely this understanding is linked to the colour of his skin.

I would also be keen to discuss the following:

  • Characterisation of Othello tips the gender balance in the play as three of the four key characters are now female.  If Othello is recast as woman, is Iago (the only male) recast as ‘Other’.  If so, how might this change how audiences view him?
  • Does the gender and/or the sexual orientation of Othello impact his effectiveness of a tragic hero?  Why/why not?
  • How does exploring the downfall of a woman and/or lesbian play into current social narratives regarding gender and sexuality?
  • Is it a feminist statement to recast Othello as a woman?  Explain.
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The ‘Good Bloke’ Narrative

14 May

A recent conversation with students about Othello raised an interesting question:  If we view Othello as offering a window into the protagonist’s domestic world, then do we also (given the play’s ending) have to view Othello as a perpetrator of domestic violence?

The question is a good one in that it demonstrates critical engagement with the text studied.  It should also be valued as a way of grappling with the play’s continued relevance.  Another way of asking this question might be: Do we value Othello for the way it sheds light on the problems plaguing domestic relationships?

This understanding of Othello as an abusive husband was almost immediately countered by another student who, instead, perceived Othello as a ‘good guy’ corrupted by the machinations of Iago.  Othello may have killed his wife, argued this student, but it wasn’t really his fault as his rage was fuelled by Iago’s manipulative conduct.

The ensuing discussion, I feel, could really have benefited from students reading Clementine Ford’s article ‘The problem with the “good bloke” narrative’.  In this article Ford discusses the inadequacy of a system where males who murder their loved ones are cast as ‘good blokes’ and, in doing so, the gravity of their conduct is diminished.  In the words of Ford:

“Turning murderers into ‘Good Blokes’ only reinforces an underlying community belief that there are circumstances in which men (and it’s always men, because nobody defends women who murder children or describes them as ‘awesome’) can be driven to this kind of response. That indeed the pressures of being a man can be so intense and suffocating that they feel they have no choice but to end the lives of everyone they’re ‘responsible’ for.”

In light of this article, I have a number of questions for my students:

  • Does/how does the characterisation of Othello as a ‘Good Bloke’ devalue women?
  • Is Othello an anti-feminist play?  Why?
  • Is Othello an anti-male play?  Why?
  • What is Shakespeare seeking to achieve through his representation of men and women?
  • What narratives about masculinity and femininity is Shakespeare offering in Othello?
  • Why is it acceptable to perceive a literary domestic abuser, but not a real life domestic violence perpetrator, as a ‘Good Bloke’?
  • At what point does/should personal responsibility begin?

Engaging the disengaged

9 Apr

I am hoping to be able to spend some time this year developing more engaging and innovative learning activities for some of my more disengaged students.  Here are some of my ideas thus far:

  • Create the pitch for a musical adaptation of the Shakespearean text we have been studying.  Which elements of the text would you retain, which would you change?  Who would you cast and why?  Write the song for a key scene in the play.  Create a storyboard outlining the plot.  Produce a costume for one of the main characters.
  • Write the next chapter of the novel we have been studying.
  • Re-write a section of the text from the perspective of a secondary character.
  • Re-imagine the poem we have studied as a narrative/conversation/feature article/persuasive speech.
  • Transform the poem we have been studying into a spoken word poem.  Justify your performance choices.

If you have any other good ideas I’d love to hear them!

Drawing out connections between texts

8 Apr

I have just commenced a comparative study with one of my classes.  Many students in this class are a bit disengaged, preferring to have the answers given to them rather than thinking for themselves.  To address this issue, I decided to take it upon myself to build their confidence in, and capacity to, interpret texts independently.

To do this, I gave them two columns of information.  The first column included extracts from a Shakespearean text, and the second quotes from the collection of poems that was to form the comparison.  Without further information, and without the aid of Google, students had to work in pairs to read the quotes and make educated guesses about the potential points of thematic connection.

During class discussion, students them had to support their responses with evidence from the quotes.  We did this using a thinking routine called ‘what makes you say that?’  As suggested by the name, kids who gave responses unsupported by evidence where asked ‘what makes you say that?’ as a means of prompting critical and analytical engagement.

It was a really successful activity, with students teasing out all the key ideas I had planned to canvass in the unit and more.

Mapping Australian Poetry

7 Apr

I am in the process of putting together a unit of work that explores changes in the Australian voice over time.  This unit will require students to explore key examples of Australian poetry and to understand how these poems are shaped by social, political and cultural contexts.

I think it will be helpful for my students to have an understanding of Australian history (in broad and general terms).  As such, I want to show them this interactive timeline.  Hopefully students can use this as a reference point, along with specific information about the poets whose work we study, to develop their capacity to discuss the contextual frameworks that inspire and inform texts.

‘Killing Kennedy’

17 Jan

I recently stumbled upon an engaging interactive site about the life and death of JFK.  I think this text could function as a pathway to exploring JFK, his life and his presidency in the history class room.   Given the split focus on JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald (who later went on to assassinate JFK), it would also be an interesting means of introducing perspectives and showcasing how different individuals can interact within a multi-modal framework.

‘A Monster Calls’ & ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’

24 Nov

I think A Monster Calls and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would make an interesting textual pairing.  Why?  Both texts explore the process of grieving and a young boy’s experiences as they have to navigate the world in the face of trauma.

This comparison would enable exploration of similar ideas (grieving, loss, truth) across the texts, while also inviting engagement with narrative voice and the ways in which the perspectives of children are created and communicated.

 

‘A Long Way Gone’ and ‘Freedom Writers’

16 Nov

For a while now I have been posting text pairings on my blog.  I tend to update it once I read or watch something new, hoping that one day I can draw from the list and teach something really exciting, engaging and thought-provoking.

I wanted to take some time out from adding to the list, instead explaining why I think particular texts would work well together.  Some of these options I have tried in my own classroom, others I aspire to teach one day but have not yet had to right class with which to test them.  I hope by explaining my thought process other teachers may have the right class with which to take the leap and might be inspired to try something new.

A Long Way Gone  is the autobiography of Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone.  This book explores mature content but in a reasonably accessible way, making it the perfect choice for a mainstream Year 10 class.

Freedom Writers is a film that explores the power of relationships both within and outside of gang culture.  It highlights the role of education and strong relations to change the trajectory of lives.  Again, the content is mature but the presentation is accessible, making it a good film to pair with A Long Way Gone.

You could engage with both the texts around the idea of relationships and the forces that inspire/compel loyalty.  It would interesting to make comparisons between the experiences of child soldiers and those of gang members.  This particular comparison also enables meaningful engagement with notions of innocence and responsibility as well as charting courses towards redemption in various forms.

FRIDAY FICTIONEERS: ‘The Signature Room’

11 Nov

I used to be a Friday Fictioneers regular, but what was intended as a short break soon become a long one.  I thought I would try break the drought with a short story in response to the prompt for this week.  As per usual, the task is to write a complete narrative in 100 words exactly!

The Signature Room

My father saw it as a vanity project.

He refused the title Grandma gave it, labelling it The Signature Room.

I saw colour whirling in time with the whispering wind, and shapes jostling into position as they awaited the arrival of royalty.

I saw windows into unfamiliar worlds, and mirrors reflecting portraits of my reality.

I saw an autobiography, where words were replaced by images, and ink with paint.

After Grandma died I invited my father to sit with me, to see her story.

Three days later a sign appeared on the door: ‘Dora’s Gallery’.

His signature was scrawled beneath.

Talking about death…

6 Nov

I love the novel A Monster Calls.  It is amazing!

This year I taught it in an abridged unit, using the text as stimulus for engagement with and production of a diverse range of text types.

Next year I want to teach it again, but differently.  In particular, I want to link it to a range of other stimulus material as a means of getting students to think critically at the issues and experiences flagged in the text.

I recently read ‘Five Sketches of a Story About Death‘ by Leesa Cross-Smith, and I think it would make a good addition to my new and improved A Monster Calls unit.  In this text, Cross-Smith canvasses various responses to and experiences related to death.  These vary in intensity and connection and could be used as part of a discussion about important issues in A Monster Calls, perhaps signalling to students that diverse responses are expected and accepted.