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Othello Digital Study Guide

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Study Guide written by Luisa Appolloni, Education Associate- Enrichment Focus, Education Department, Stratford Festival


"Reputation is an idle and false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving."

- Iago, Othello, Act II, scene 3

Othello, the "Moor," is a romantic figure, a hero: noble and powerful. For those qualities and traits, however, he is both admired and hated in equal measure. Iago's hatred and envy toward him will cause Othello's downfall. By deviously orchestrating false statements and misperceptions to breed jealousy and hatred, Iago causes reputations and lives to be lost. But Othello is much more than a story built on idle gossip. It offers us a rich opportunity to examine the play and the humanity of the characters through the intersectionality of oppression. By exploring the ways in which racism, misogyny and access to power together impact the characters' experiences of jealousy, desire and manipulation, students are able to look at the resonance of Othello in the twenty-first century. In seeing the play and participating in the exercises in this guide, students can ask questions about what happens to a society built on falsehoods, the consequences of marginalization and the complexity of power in their daily lives.

Content Advisory for Students

Contains staged violence, including murder and suicide. Deals with issues of oppression, including racism and misogyny.

Curriculum Connections

Grades 7 +

  • Global Competencies:
    • Creativity
    • Learning to Learn/Self-Awareness
    • Communication
    • Collaboration
    • Critical Thinking
  • Grades 7-12:
    • Language/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning)
    • Drama, Music, Visual Art
  • Grades 7-12:
    • Health and PE (interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, harassment, bullying, leadership)
  • Grade 10:
    • Civics (rights and responsibilities, inclusion)
  • Grade 11:
    • Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (explaining human mental processes and behaviour)
    • Gender Studies (power relations, sex and gender)
    • Equity, Diversity and Social Justice (the social construction of identity, power and relations)
  • Grade 12:
    • Equity and Social Justice: From Theory to Practice (power relations, historical and contemporary issues, leadership)
    • World History Since the Fifteenth Century (social, economic and political context)
    • Adventures in World History (politics and conflict)

Themes and Motifs

  • Relationships: Love and Marriage; Gender and Sex; Trust, Jealousy and Fear
  • Self-Knowledge: Appearance and Reality; Sight and Blindness; Confidence and Insecurity
  • Power: Racism and Discrimination; Identity; Isolation; Lying, Deceit and Manipulation;
  • Masculinity; Violence, Heroism and Honour
  • Motifs: Plants, Animals, Hell, Demons and Monsters

A Perspective on the Piece from the Director

With Nigel Shawn Williams

Why did you choose to direct this production? What excites you most about it?
I chose to direct Othello for a number of reasons. I've always loved the internal motor of the play. Othello, unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, plays out over a period of four days. Once the action begins, the tension and the conflicts increase at such a pace the audience barely has time to catch their breath. I love diving into stories with such a pulsating internal clock. I'm also excited to investigate the poisonous nature of lies and manipulated information, and how its effects on one can damage so many. Having an opportunity to uncover dark matter is what excites me most about directing any play.

Is there anything you can share about your vision or particular approach to the piece?
I believe water is the most powerful elemental life force. Water is life. The sense of water has always brought feelings of purity, truth and cleanliness. Women, too, represent and are the most powerful physical life force. If and when men do not respect, honour and hold this dear, there can only be a beginning of destruction. This production will centre itself on the strength of the women characters and how their natural course, their inherent natures, and their power are disrupted by the petty insecurities of a patriarchal world. When the life force of a woman stops, so does the water. Man cannot hold water back. A dam will eventually burst. Desdemona is the Queen of Cups.

What new insights into the relationship between power, race and gender does this play afford us in 2019?
Othello is a story that still affects us all today. We must look at this story and see how far we still have to go in order for all of us to live side by side in harmony. This play is about what happens when hatred, racism and jealousy consume us and how that infection can eat away at our moral souls until the innocent are sacrificed.

What do you hope audience members will experience during the show? What questions or new thinking do you want them to leave with at the end of the play?
There is a triangle of representation in this play: Desdemona, Iago, Othello. I would like our audiences to leave this production and consider whom they most resemble in that triangle; and then ask why, if they did not choose Iago, were they complicit with him through the entire show. Every one of us has a part of these three characters in us. It is the Iago we have to keep in check. When we silence him - that character, that characteristic - we break the triangle, as we should, and we begin to live as we should. In a circle, in harmony, in a flow. In water.


Ask students:

  • What do you expect to see on stage at the Stratford Festival? Make a list of predictions about what you expect. Save the list and, after the trip, revisit your predictions to see how they compared to the actual production.
  • How would you define a hero? Why?
  • What do you consider the relationships between good and evil? Are the lines between the two ever blurred? Why or why not?
  • What is "the green-eyed monster"? What triggers jealousy among people? Is it a normal feeling to experience? How do people typically behave when they feel jealous?
  • What are race, racism, colonialism and culture? Look up the actual definitions and discuss how they are perceived in your own community.
  • How do systems of oppression work together? For example, is there a relationship between misogyny and racism?
  • Shakespeare wrote only three female characters in Othello: Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca. He wrote this play four hundred years ago. Knowing this, in what ways do you imagine these characters might be portrayed? How has the role of women changed since then? What still needs to be done in order to achieve gender equity?

WARM-UP EXERCISE: The World of the Play through Individual Words


  • This introductory exercise provides students with an opportunity to play, collaborate and imagine the world of the play through the text.



1. Invite students to stand in a circle with their hands held out in front of them to indicate that they haven't been called and pointed to yet.

2. Establish the pattern by pointing to one of the students after you call out their name. In turn, that student calls another student's name, then points to them and puts down his or her hands.

3. The students continue until each person is a part of the pattern.

4. Tell the students to remember who they pointed to in the circle: this is the pattern. Repeat the pattern to reinforce it.

5. Using the precut text, give one word to each student in the circle. Have them now repeat the pattern just saying the word. Invite them to do so a few times.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Based on the words you have heard, what do you think the play is about?
  • What three words really stood out and made a strong impression on you? Why?
  • Take your word and look up its definition in at least three different dictionaries. Does the word have multiple meanings or a possible meaning that is different from what you imagined? If so, in what ways does that change your understanding of the story?
  • What questions do you have about the play?

EXERCISE: Impressions of Iago


This exercise will enable students to study key words and phrases in the text at the beginning of the play that reveal Iago's character and motivation using an active and engaging approach.


  • Handout: Act I, scene 1 - Iago's Rant
  • Handout: Act I, scene 3 - Iago's Soliloquy
  • A space in which to move


1. Choose four people who will be the "outer" voice of Iago and give them the Act I, scene 1 - Iago's Rant handout sheet. They are to each choose a line from this sheet or may review Act I, scene 1 to find a line from the text (not listed on the sheet) that they would like to use.

2. Have these four move around the room saying their lines out loud and experimenting with various emotional qualities, vocal ranges and pitches.

3. Hand out Act I, scene 3 - Iago's Soliloquy to rest of the class. Read the soliloquy together, each taking a line.

4. Review all unfamiliar words and phrases, and check for understanding.

5. After reading the text together at least twice, divide the lines according to the number of students in the group.

6. Have each student move around the room saying their lines out loud and experimenting with various emotional qualities, vocal ranges and pitches.

7. Once both groups are comfortable saying their lines out loud, have the soliloquy group clump in the centre and become the "inner" voice and devise a plan as to how they will stage their speech as each person speaks their line. They must stay close together in the centre, but may choose to employ gesture or to experiment with their physical configuration.

8. The outer group will first observe the inner group. They will then come up with a plan as to when they will speak their lines. They may choose to speak after the inner team says a particular line, they may speak before the soliloquy begins, they may choose to give an epilogue after the soliloquy, or they might employ a combination of all of the above. The outer team is free to roam around the inner team, which will stay in the centre.

9. Allow some time for the two teams to rehearse and coordinate their staging.

10. When ready, have the students perform.

11. You might choose to make a video of their final presentation so you can review the video with the whole class to inform your discussion on what they discovered while doing this activity.

Debriefing Questions:

  • What did you notice about Iago's state of mind?
  • What words in Iago's soliloquy point to Iago's character? What do we know about him based on this text?
  • Did this character draw you in? Why or why not?

In the play, Othello promotes Cassio to lieutenant instead of Iago. Why do you think he made this choice? Do you believe Othello made the right decision? Explain.


Ask students:

  • Othello is, at the same time and by the same people, held up as a hero and discriminated against. How is this possible?
  • Why do you think Iago was able to manipulate Othello? Why do you think Othello trusted Iago more than Desdemona, his wife?
  • Do you have sympathy for Othello? Why or why not?
  • In what ways did Othello's language change over the course of the play? What did this tell us about him?
  • How did the female characters shape your understanding of the play?
  • How would you describe Desdemona and Emilia's characters? In what ways did their behaviour change when they were among men as opposed to when they were with one another? How did their respective relationships with Othello and Iago influence their speech and actions?
  • Would it have been possible for the play to have a different ending? Why or why not?
  • Othello is a complex play. What were the key themes that stood out for you? What do you think is the play's central message? What do you think the director is trying to say?
  • Does this play resonate with today's politics, gender issues and racism? What are the similarities and differences?
  • How did the production elements (costumes, lights, music and set) affect your experience?



Students will use a variety of dramatic techniques to deepen their understanding of how the characters communicate ideas and issues in the play. They will make connections between them and assess their attitudes towards power and the role of men and women.


  • Copies of excerpt from Act V, scene 2
  • A space in which to move


1. Hand out copies of Act V, scene 2 (excerpt) - Emilia's Rebellion.

2. Stand in a circle and read aloud, with each person taking a line each.

3. Review all unfamiliar words and phrases, and check for understanding.

4. There are five central roles in this scene. Choose one or two people to read for Othello, one or two for Iago, one for Montano, one for Gratiano, and all the rest will become the voice of Emilia. As with the second exercise, divide her lines among the group. Note: For this exercise, you may also choose to split the class in two, so students may form an audience for one another's presentations.

5. The Emilias will form a large outer circle and step into the circle when it is his/her turn to speak his/her line. The other characters - Othello, Montano, Gratiano and Iago - will stand inside the circle formed by the Emilias.

6. Read the text together several times.

7. Rehearse the scene and encourage the students to experiment with volume, tone, rate and how each character reacts as the scene unfolds.
8. After the final presentation, have the students discuss their findings.

Debriefing Questions:

  • What did you notice about each character's behaviour? Did one character come out better than the others did?
  • Where did your sympathies lie as you were playing the scene?
  • Shakespeare wrote at a time when women were subject to strict laws and faced severe repercussions if they did not obey their husbands. Why do you think Shakespeare chose a woman to expose the truth in the end, despite the heavy costs? If you were Emilia, would you have spoken up? Explain.
  • How does Emilia in this scene compare to Desdemona in her first speech? In what ways do each of these women change over the course of the play?





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Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet

MIT Global Shakespeares

MIT Shakespeare Homepage: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Life and Times

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Movie Review Query Engine

Internet Movie Database,



1952 (USA/France) The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. Directed by Orson Wells; starring Orson Wells, Micheál MacLiammóir, Suzanne Cloutier.

1967 (UK) Othello. Directed by Stuart Burge; starring Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay and Maggie Smith.

1989 (South Africa) Othello. Directed by Janet Suzman; starring John Kani, Richard Haines and Joanna Weinberg.

1990 (UK) Othello. Directed Trevor Nunn; starring Ian McKellen, Willard White, and Imogen Stubbs.

1995 (USA) Othello. Directed by Oliver Parker; starring Lawrence Fishburne, Kenneth Branagh and Irene Jacob.

2001 (USA) "O". Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles.

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