Subject: Drama/Shakespeare; Characterization

Ages: 14+

Length: Snippet: Two segments of approximately 18 minutes total. Lesson: One and one half 45 to 55 minute class periods.

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Students will experience the importance of actors’ body language, facial expressions, inflection, tone and volume to communicate ideas and feelings in the description of character in staged presentations.


By sensitizing students to the presentation of character in dramatic presentations, this snippet will prepare them for reading, watching or performing any play that relies upon a close study of character.


The snippet consists of two different performances of Desdemona’s death scene from Shakespeare’s Othello.


1. Review the Snippet and to make sure it is suitable for the class. Review the Lesson Plan and decide how to present it to students, making any necessary modifications. Decide whether to supplement or edit the introduction suggested below.


2. Practice finding each of the film clips on the DVD. Cue the DVD to the beginning of the first film clip and make sure that all necessary materials are available.


1. Deliver an introduction including the following information. Delete or add information, depending upon the sophistication and needs of the class.

This lesson will provide an example of two different acting styles and demonstrate how acting can bring out the potential of the words in a script. The scenes shown in the these two clips come from Shakespeare’s play Othello. The play takes place during the Middle Ages in the Italian city state of Venice. At that time Venice was a Christian naval and military power. Its wealth came from its strategic location on trade routes leading to Western Europe from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Spices and other goods were transported on Venetian ships to Europe. [Show the location of Venice on a map.]

Othello is a Moor, a Muslim of dark complexion from North Africa or the Middle East, who rose to prominence as a general in the Venetian military. In the course of the play he falls in love with Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic Venetian family. Desdemona also loves Othello and although she is white and Christian, Othello is so valuable to the city of Venice that he and Desdemona are allowed to marry.

Othello is hated by his lieutenant, Iago, who conspires to make Othello believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. Consumed with jealousy, Othello murders his wife, whom he still loves and who still loves him. Desdemona’s death scene contains some of Shakespeare’s best writing.

In Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed to act in theaters; female roles were played by boys or young men. This changed in 1660, some 45 years after Shakespeare’s death. In that year, King Charles II, who had seen women act in theaters located on the European continent, decreed that female parts could be played by women. One of the first performances by a woman on the public stage was in the role of Desdemona in an adaptation of Othello performed late in the year 1660. This snippet is from the movie “Stage Beauty” and shows two different versions of Desdemona’s death scene. The first version shows the scene before women were allowed to act on the stage. Desdemona is played by a talented male actor. The second rendition is a recreation of what might have happened the first time that a woman played the part.

In written literature, characterization is presented through description, action and dialogue. In drama, characterization includes each of these elements and, in addition, the actor’s skill in communication through body language, facial expressions, inflection, tone and volume. This class will explore the use of the actor’s craft in describing character.


2. Show the first version of Desdemona’s death scene.


3. Ask the class: (1) to evaluate the performance, first of the actor playing Othello and second of the actor playing Desdemona; and (2) whether students thought the scene communicated the passions inherent in a confrontation between a jealous husband and his wrongly accused wife.


4. Play the second version of Desdemona’s death scene.


5. Engage students in a comparison of the two presentations of Desdemona’s death scene based on the following prompts:


1. How does the presentation of Desdemona differ between the two versions in terms of physical movement?


2. What are the differences in voice, inflection, tone and volume of the character of Desdemona between the performances?


3. What contrasts can be found between the performance of the actor who played Othello in the first version and the performance of the actor in the same role played out in the second version?


4. Do either of the versions of the scene appear to express feelings that would be felt by a jealous man and a wrongfully accused wife or girlfriend in today’s times? Justify your answer focusing on how these feelings were conveyed by the actors.


5. Do either of the versions show that Desdemona and Othello actually love each other? Which does it best? What components of the acting show this?


Note to Teachers: Make sure the discussion covers body movement, facial expression, inflection, tone and volume. At an appropriate time during the discussion, consider telling the class that in the course of the film, the character of the actress who plays Desdemona in the second version tells the male actor who played Desdemona in the first version that his rendition of Desdemona was inaccurate because a woman would fight for her life.



Acting Activities


These activities are recommended for both English Language Arts classes and for Drama classes.


6. Teachers can illustrate the power of intonation through a one minute exercise: ask students to say the word “oh” all together. This sometimes takes practice. Then ask them to say the same word with a question mark at the end; then in anger; then with skepticism; then as if they were afraid; then as if they were disappointed; and, finally, as if they had just seen a cute puppy. The tone shifts the meaning of the word in ways the students can easily understand. Point out that facial expressions almost automatically match the meaning of what is being said.


7. Divide the class into pairs and have students create a one to three minute scene in which something happens but the only word that can be said is “oh” and meaning must be communicated through movement of the body, facial expression, tone of voice, inflection, and volume. Scenes may include a one person asking for a date, to be accepted or rejected by the other; one person robbing the other, with threats and pleas expressed in one syllable; one person accusing the other of some violation of the rules, as if a parent or another authority figure accuses a child, and the child denies the accusation.

This Snippet Lesson Plan was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. It was published on December 31, 2009.

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