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Retelling Othello: Teach the Story of a Character

Background Information

Although reading Shakespeare may seem challenging, or for some even outdated, critics such as Ian Smith suggest how and in what way Shakespeare’s 1603 play offers insight into concerns of today. In his article “We Are Othello” (see Bb readings) Smith calls attention to the place names, “Ferguson, Baltimore, and Cleveland,” to which can be added Louisville, Minneapolis, and Atlanta, as flash points “to initiate a dialogue about Shakespeare and race that sustains the vital connections among the “world, the text, and the critic” or the “responsible reader” (114). Smith states:

Framing the recent killings of blacks within a renewed vision of the civil rights movement for contemporary America, the hip-hop artist and actor Common, who renounced homophobia in his own lyrics in 2007, reflects in a recent speech, ‘I realize that I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote; I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom; I am the unarmed black kid who may be needed a hand but instead was given a bullet; I am the two fallen police officers, murdered in the line of duty. Here is a voice giving a modern take on ‘It is we who are Othello.’ Speaking race enlightened by this level of intersectional identity [race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.] and awareness can do justice to Othello’s request, ‘Speak of me as I am’. (124)

In the past the ‘go to’ Shakespeare play was Hamlet; however, most audiences (teachers, students, critics), emphasize that Othello is the play of our moment, the play that speaks to us today.  With that in mind, I would like you to consider Othello’s last speech.  At the end of act 5, Othello turns to his audience to say:

Soft you. A word or two before you go.

I have done the state some service, and they know’t.

No more of that. I pray you in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. (5.2.397-401)

Ian Smith compares Othello’s dying request with Hamlet’s, “to tell my story.” Unlike Othello, Hamlet knows he has a trusted friend, Horatio, a just man, who will tell his story.  Othello, however, does not. Othello understands “that at that moment his immediate audience is all white, and that for them to tell his story is a much more treacherous adventure” (qtd. in Bogaev).

Assignment Directions and Paper Requirements

As a play, Othello asks important questions about stories: Who tells a story and who listens? In what cultural or historical context is a story told?  Are story tellers reliable?  What about the listener, the ability to hear and evaluate stories?  

What does it mean when someone asks us to tell his/her tory?  More specifically, how do we tell Othello’s story?

Assignment Directions and Paper Requirements

Unlike your film proposal, which relied on your adaptation of a story for film production, your final project will be a variation of a traditional academic paper. Your task for Paper 3 is to retell – or teach – Othello’s story. If you prefer, rather than Othello, you can focus on ‘teaching’ Desdemona or Emilia’s story, the voices of women, or even Iago’s story, a voice of racism and ‘white privilege.’  Whichever one of these four characters you choose, interpret that character’s story for your audience. You can refer to other relationships or interactions that affect or influence your character but keep your focus (or critical thesis) on the character you select.

This paper allows you to disagree with other critics. In the past, race was a topic often neglected in Othello. You might ask yourself why and argue against (or for) a particular critical perspective. Another question you might ask is Othello a racist, misogynist, or xenophobic play? (see note). Does Shakespeare dramatize a moral issue or stereotype regarding race, gender, or nationality as a means to endorse (approve), or instead, to question and expose it?

This is an interpretive paper so take some thinking about your assignment (link). Stay within the play itself. Even as you might highlight a scene, a particular aspect of character, do not rewrite or revise the original narrative as you did for Paper 2.  Consider the social environment of the early 1600s as well as how a particular conflict or dilemma your character faces initiates “a dialogue about Shakespeare” that supports “vital connections” among the ‘world, the text, and you,’ the responsible reader (Smith 114). Reflect on your reading of Othello, what you discovered or learned, how your character speaks to an important issue or cultural moment within the play but also within the 21st century.  

Remember to title your paper – an original title!  Your audience for the paper is a group of high school or college students who may not be fully familiar with the play.

Critical Sources and Documentation Guidelines

This paper must develop your prewriting assignment (Paper 3) to receive credit. In addition to the play itself, Paper 4 requires the use of three secondary sources. You can add more sources if you choose, but your paper must include an academic journal article as well as the following.  

  • An academic journal article on Othellofrom a QCC database: Academic Search Complete, Humanities Source, JSTOR, (see link, Video Tutorial: Searching Academic Search Complete).
  • A podcast, video, theatre review, or articleon Othello from a reliable Internet source or archive, for example Google Scholar, Open-Source Commons, PBS Learning, etc.
  • A source that addresses the play directly or indirectly, for example a historical or cultural source on gender or race, a theatrical guide, a film or documentary, a current newspaper article or event.

Use sources (in your prewrting paper) to clarify your position. Although you are incorporating additional sources, these should not overwhelm your own interpretation and voice. Secondary sources offer windows that help you define your own critical perspective even as you may support or disagree with a critic’s claims. Cite all sources in the body of your paper (in-text citations) and on your Works Cited page using MLA format. Quotes should make up no more than 15% of the paper as they highlight (not replace) a point you want to make (see link ‘effective quotes, paraphrases, summaries’).  

Note: See our Bb menu tab (‘Course Materials and Othello’) for writing guides and materials, research and documentation guides (MLA), searching QCC databases, sample annotations, and sample student papers. For extra support with writing, visit the Center for Tutoring and Academic Support: CTAS.  QCC students can receive one-on-one tutoring online for writing assignments. You’re also able to submit drafts to Tiger Write and receive feedback from a writing tutor within 48 hours.

Paper Due Date: December 19 (final date to submit paper). All papers must be uploaded to the Turnitin link, Bb Assignment page.  Please note: After December 12, I will not comment on any papers for revision.  

Paper Length: 4-5 pages (1100-1250 plus words), typed, double-spaced, twelve-point font, New Times Roman or Garamond -- not bold or italicized.

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