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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?

‘The Interlopers’

31 Oct

I recently read ‘The Interlopers‘, a short story in which two feuding men find themselves trapped beneath a tree on the land the subject of their dispute.

I think this could be an interesting related text for AOS Discovery and would pair particularly well with The Tempest.  Like Prospero, the protagonists are blinded by hatred and anger.  These emotions prevent them from making any meaningful discoveries about themselves and their world.  It is only when circumstances transpire to open their minds that they are able to discover.

Exciting new pairings!

23 Oct

My list of suggested textual pairings now includes over 140 options!

I have tried to incorporate texts that schools may have already, pairing them with new options to renew student and teacher interest.

I have also incorporated some texts that may not be classroom staples but, in my view, should be!

If you have any additional suggestions, or have tried some of these options in your classroom, please let me know!

Reading to Write

4 Sep

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the new stage 6 English syllabus.  In particular, I have found myself unable to stop thinking about the new Year 11 unit ‘Reading to Write’.   In this unit students are offered opportunities to “undertake the intensive and close reading of quality texts,” using these to “develop the skills and knowledge necessary to appreciate, understand, analyse and evaluate how and why texts convey complex ideas, relationships, endeavours and scenarios” (Stage-6 Advanced English syllabus document).

Below are a selection of texts which I think could offer some interesting opportunities for engagement.  I will add to the list as I come up with more ideas.

‘New Boy’

2 Sep

I have just finished reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy, it is an appropriation of Othello and part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that also includes Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.

Like OthelloNew Boy explores jealousy, manipulation and choices that cannot be unmade.  Interestingly, New Boy sets the action in a school playground, perhaps alluding to the notion that the manipulation engineered by Ian (the Iago character) is just another childish game.  This setting also allows the easy manipulation of Oesi (the Othello character) to seem more plausible; it makes more sense to me that a child, rather than an adult soldier, may not have the resilience or savvy to withstand the tactics of a manipulator.

Another interesting choice made by the author is the title.  Unlike Shakespeare who named his text directly after his protagonist, Chevalier has chosen to title hers New Boy,  I think this raises some interesting questions:  Does using the protagonist’s name honour  the protagonist or publicly call out his conduct? Is referencing a status rather than a name a statement of universal applicability or does it buy in to the very prejudice that is described in the text?  Do these choices honour victims or name perpetrators?  Why does the manipulator not have his name or his title plastered across the front of the cover?

I think New Boy could be a really interesting text to teach alongside Othello in Year 11 Advanced, perhaps functioning as a precursor to an HSC study of The Tempest and Hag-Seed.

 

‘Viceroy’s House’

11 Jun

I recently watched Viceroy’s House, a film about the transition of British India to independence.  The film was beautifully made, utilising the difficulties of a love between a Hindu (Jeet Kumar) and Muslim (Aalia Noor) to represent the divisions in a nation that will need to be partitioned in order to realise dreams of independence.

I think the film could be an interesting partner for a study of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  This pairing would be a particularly useful way of exploring how the relationship between protagonists illuminates broader social tensions.

It would also be a good related text for Year 11 AOS Journeys or Change.  In both instances, students would be able to analyse the experiences of characters and then connect this to journeys or change on a national scale.

‘The African Doctor’

25 Mar

I recently watched The African Doctor.  This film explores the experiences of a recently arrived family of Congolese descent as they seek to find their place in a rural village in France.

Although overly simplistic at times, the text engages with ideas of tolerance, acceptance, identity and communal action.  For these reasons, I think the text has the potential to engage students.

That said, I think I would be reluctant to study this text in isolation.  I think it would work best either as part of a comparative unit, or as a related text for AOS Journey or Discovery.

Pairs of text everywhere!

5 Mar

Recent updates mean that my list of paired texts now has over 100 options!

New additions include:

  • After the Storm (film)
  • A Monster Calls (novel)
  • A United Kingdom (film)
  • Boy (film)
  • Face (novel)
  • Lion (film)
  • Queen of Katwe (film)
  • Tanna (film)
  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (film)
  • The Intouchables (film).

More Updates!

26 Jan

I am continuing updating some of the lists that I have posted previously.

I am pleased to report that I have now updated the Distinctive Voices related text list.  There are now over 30 examples of Distinctive Voices related texts.

I have also updated my Pairs of Texts post.  It now contains over 90 suggested text pairings for a range of different high school grades and contexts.

I would love to hear in the comments sections if any of these texts have worked for you or your students.  I would also love to hear if you have any additional suggestions for me to add to the lists.