I have taught Othello for eleven years now, so long that I know the play backward and forward and can quote a number of passages from memory. Normally we read the play in class and at the end of each act we watch the corresponding portion of the movie. I suspect many teachers do this same thing with other Shakespeare plays, or any play for that matter.
However, this year I decided to do things differently. I had a student ask me at the beginning of the year why we never watched the movie before we read the play. Wouldn’t we understand the play better if we watched it first? she argued.
I thought she was on to something. In the past I have seen watching the movie as a “reward” for reading the text, a way to reinforce understanding before we moved on to the next act. But if we show the movie to help students understand the play, why not do it first? If we truly want students to understand Shakespeare, would this not be the best way to help them do this?
So that’s what we did. I have no illusions that I’m the first person to do this, but it did have a dramatic effect on what I did afterward.
For one thing, watching the movie required little set up in terms of plot. I could give them a bit of background about the play and then trust the movie to do the rest of the work. The movie version of Othello with Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Fishburne is really good for this reason; many critics don’t feel like it captures the play effectively, but it does provide students with the gist of the play, and some excellent visuals. They were into it, too. We didn’t quite get to the end of the play in one period and many students immediately hit google to find out how it ended.
I also turned the subtitles on so that they got an early dose of the text as well. I highly recommend doing this. The kids loved it.
Also, once I knew they had the basic idea of the play, I could then turn them loose on the text and expect that they had the background to know what was going on. Once they knew what happened, they could turn their attention to how the play was put together.
I was also able to skip chunks of the play that furthered the plot. I decided we would only read Acts I, III, and V. I know there is a lot of good stuff in II and IV, but I resisted the temptation to cover everything for the sake of giving students a more manageable amount of text to work with. I know that in some circles of English teachers, not reading the entire play will get you shunned from the group, but I went with it.
My fears for showing the movie first are common, I think. For one thing I was concerned that they would find little value in reading the play if they watched the movie. Also, it seemed like cheating – I wasn’t making the students work as hard as they should be by giving them the easier route at the beginning. Could they then read the play without really reading it because they knew what happened?
I struggle with the proper way to approach any play in class. We all know that any play is meant to be watched rather than read, and there’s always this sense of “why are we doing this?” any time we read the play as a class, either by assigning parts or listening to an audio version with professional actors. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for plays if we watched a performance of some kind rather than reading it aloud at all (I actually did that this year with Waiting For Godot, an unreadable play if there ever was one.) The way we teach novels replicates the way anyone reads a book, either on their own or listening to an audiobook. Reading a play, however, seems very far removed from how it is meant to be experienced.
I thought this might be a good compromise: we watch a performance of it, then dig a lot deeper with the play once we know what’s going on.