Contemporary Debates through Dramatic Characters


Contemporary Debates through Dramatic Characters


Martine van Elk, California State University, Long Beach


I assign an essay that asks students to do three things:
1. discuss a single character from Othello using at least two aspects of their identity (choosing from categories like race, class, age, profession, gender, sexuality, nationality);
2. use Shakespeare's source by Cinthio for comparison;
3. use the Norton General Introduction for background information.

This essay is prepared for by small group discussions in class that are then shared with the others, by discussion of Cinthio, and by use of the General Intro all semester. It helps students to see diverse identities but also to see that a person's identity may have different contradictory aspects to it (eg. Othello's race, age, masculinity, and nobility may all work to pull him in different directions at once). It helps them complicate and see identity as a matter of intersecting forces.

The main pitfall is that they might do traditional character-based readings that are not thematic enough. But if they follow the prompt, which asks them to see dramatic characters as constructions that contribute to contemporary debates on these issues, it can work well. Use of the Norton Introduction allows them to historicize without making assumptions about "people at that time." Cinthio's text shows them that early modern texts can be various and makes them think about Shakespeare's alterations. I also encourage them to see race not as a category that only applies to Othello or gender as a category that only applies to the women in the play; they can also think about Iago's or Desdemona's whiteness for instance.


Type of course: Upper Level; General Education/Literature for Non-Majors; Single Author; In-Person
Time required: essay assignment (1200 words) prepared for by group work in class (45 mins)


Martine van Elk, California State University, Long Beach, “Contemporary Debates through Dramatic Characters ,” Teaching the Middle Ages in Higher Ed, accessed May 29, 2020,

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