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A Level Paper 2, Section B The Language of Poetry and Plays
Component 02, ‘The Language of Poetry and Plays’, is assessed by a two-hour, closed text examination. It consists of two equally weighted sections, which together comprise 32% of the total A Level.
Section B, ‘Plays: dramatic and stylistic analysis’, consists of one question per set text (no choice). Learners are given an extract from the play they have studied, and are required to analyse the stylistic and dramatic techniques used in the extract, its significance in the context of the play as a whole, and any relevant dramatic or other contexts. The question will require them to direct their analysis to the ways in which the playwright presents a particular character, theme, idea, or other aspect of the play.
The dominant assessment objective for this section is AO2 (‘Analyse the ways in which meanings are shaped in texts’: 6%), though answers will also be assessed for AO1 (‘Apply concepts and methods from integrated linguistic and literary study, using associated terminology and coherent written expression’: 5%), and AO3 (‘Demonstrate understanding of the significance and influence of the contexts in which texts are produced’: 5%).
Learners are expected to:
- Show knowledge and understanding of the play they have studied.
- Use linguistic and stylistic approaches and an understanding of dramatic techniques to develop an analysis of the play.
- Apply relevant methods for text analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary approaches.
- Explore contexts and connections between the scene and the play as a whole, as well as literary and generic contexts.
They should be able to:
- Explore dramatic techniques such as on-stage and off-stage action, paralinguistic features (gesture/manner of speech/facial expressions), soliloquies, asides and dramatic irony.
- Analyse aspects of the text foregrounded through the use of repetition, pattern-making, pattern-breaking and deviation. This approach can be meaningfully applied to the structure of the play, for example in its use of echoing or opposed scenes, characters or action, as well as to its language.
- Identify and describe how meanings and effects are created through language. In addition to linguistic, stylistic and literary approaches, this might involve the carefully selective use of analytical methods derived from the study of spoken language, and a focus on rhetoric.
- Consider the significance of relevant dramatic or other contexts. For the purposes of this specification, ‘context’ here is primarily understood to denote the relationship between the given extract and the play as a whole; as well as the play’s generic context – in this case the set of expectations and conventions associated with tragedy. As a secondary consideration, relevant aspects of the play’s literary and socio-historical context might include: its relationship to its source; attitudes to race and gender; the connotations of its two settings, Venice and Cyprus; the practical circumstances of its original creation and staging; the history of its production and reception.
Since learners are likely to be studying Othello in the second year of the A Level, it is to be assumed that they will already have a sound understanding of the Language Levels. Their study of the more rhetorical texts in the Anthology will be useful to them when they come to the play, as will, to some extent, the spoken texts that involve interaction between speakers. Much of Othello is, of course, written in poetry, and learners’ analysis of the language of the play will be supported by, and will also complement, their understanding of certain aspects of poetic technique: specifically the manipulation of line and metre and the use of figurative language.
One of the challenges of teaching a drama text is finding ways of reminding learners that they are studying a work that was intended to be experienced as performance. Activities Eight and Twelve were devised with this in mind. Another common problem that arises when studying plays is the propensity of some learners to respond to characters as if they were real. Activities Five and Ten, which encourage learners to think of the characters in Othello as dramatic constructs, with a dramatic function, are partly intended to help discourage this tendency.
The activities described here are closely related to the task that learners will have to undertake in the exam. Many of them (Activities Three, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Twelve) involve a close focus on the language of the play, but in all of these learners are also required, sometimes implicitly but generally explicitly, to consider the results of their close analysis in the context of their understanding of the play as a whole. Activity Five is intended to enable learners to locate their analysis of specific extracts within the context of the play’s structure. Activity One focuses on Othello’s generic context; Activities Eleven and Thirteen on issues of race and gender; Activity Four on setting; and Activities Thirteen and Fourteen on contexts of production and reception.
Activity One – the title (genre)
Activity Two – the dramatis personae (tension and conflict)
Activity Three – two speeches (the tragic hero)
Activity Four – Venice and Cyprus
During Reading activities:
Activity Five – scenic structure
Activity Six – recurring words and images
Activity Seven – a tabulated speech
Activity Eight – deviations from the norm
Activity Nine – the play as performance (playwright, editor, director)
Activity Ten – the power of stories (Labov’s theory of oral narrative)
After Reading activities:
Activity Eleven – angels and strumpets (hot-seating the women)
Activity Twelve – Othello and Iago: the Great Persuaders (debate)
Activity Thirteen – A racist play or a play about racism? (student research and presentations on Othello in peformance)
Activity Fourteen – critical responses to Othello
Ask learners, in groups, to brainstorm as many titles of Shakespeare plays as they can think of. Elicit which of these plays are tragedies, and encourage learners to identify what their titles have in common, i.e. the fact that they all consist of a character’s name. Discuss the implications of this, namely tragedy’s characteristic focus on a single main character, the protagonist. Though it would be worth mentioning at this stage that tragedy criticism has its own history, and that critics have approached the study of the protagonist, or tragic hero, in different ways over the years, recent approaches, which see tragedy as concerned with the role of the tragic hero in his social context, work particularly well with Othello, whom Shakespeare seems at pains to present as an outsider.
It would also be worthwhile discussing at this stage the extent to which a protagonist needs an antagonist – or ‘villain’, as Shakespeare would have described him. Othello is unique among Shakespeare’s tragedies in having such a dominant and dominating villain – Iago’s role is actually the largest in the play – who haunts Othello like a dark shadow.
And finally, it would be interesting to touch briefly on the popularity of a sub-genre – revenge tragedy – in Shakespeare’s day. The word ‘revenge’ occurs eight times in Othello (there are only three Shakespeare plays in which it occurs more often), but it is one of the play’s terrible ironies that the act that Othello believes himself to be avenging – Desdemona’s infidelity – never actually occurred.
For an invaluable introduction to tragedy, see Sean McEvoy et al., Tragedy: A Student Handbook (London, English and Media Centre, 2009), which has a section on Othello. See also Barbara Bleiman, Lucy Webster et al., Studying Othello (London, English and Media Centre, 2003), pp. 99-102.
No drama without tension and conflict. A useful way of conveying this, while also enabling learners to predict some aspects of the play’s content, is to give them the list of characters, cut up, and ask them to find as many ways of grouping them as they can (by status, gender, age, place of origin, etc), recording their groupings as they go - make it clear that they don’t need to use all the characters each time they regroup. They can then predict possible tensions and conflicts between the different groups, speculating on the reasons for these.
This activity is also a good opportunity for a brief discussion of Shakespeare’s names: apart from ‘Desdemona’ (known as ‘Disdemona’ in the source for Othello, a mid-sixteenth-century novella by the Venetian writer Cinthio), all the names in the play are Shakespeare’s own. What might it mean, for example, to call a character ‘Bianca’? And for a fascinating discussion of the Spanish name ‘Iago’, and its connotations of the patron saint of Spain, Santiago ‘Matamoros’, or ‘Moor-slayer’, see Barbara Everett, Young Hamlet: Essays on Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 190-1.
Before starting to read the play from the beginning, give learners copies of two of Othello’s speeches: his address to the Venetian senate in Act One, Scene Three, offering to explain the true nature of his relationship with Desdemona (‘Most potent, grave and reverend signiors . . . I won his daughter‘); and his speech to Iago in Act Four, Scene One, just before he appears to have a fit (‘Lie with her? . . . O devil!’). Comparing these will enable learners to predict some of the play’s content, and will alert them to the kind of analysis they will be expected to apply to the text.
Explain where in the play the speeches occur, and that they are both spoken by Othello, then ask learners, in groups, to compare them, using the following prompts:
- Sentence types
- Rhetorical technique
- Modes of address
Once they have identified the main differences, ask the groups to predict what these suggest about the trajectory of the play and of Othello himself.
See Learner resource 1.
It would be worth returning to this activity once you have finished reading the play, to elicit a fuller discussion on the significance of its settings.
For an excellent selection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English opinions on Italy and Venice, and recent critical discussions of Othello’s settings, see Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, Studying Othello (London, English and Media Centre, 2003), pp. 13-15.
See Learner resource 3.
Another way of enabling your learners to trace the occurrences of particular and related words is to introduce them to concordances. These are easy and fun to use and can be made to yield fascinating data. An online Shakespeare concordance can be found in the resources link - Concordance of Shakespeare's complete works.
When you have finished reading the play, it would be worthwhile following up on Shakespeare’s use of the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’, by exploring more fully the antithesis between them that lies at the heart of the play. For excellent ideas on how to explore this visually, see Jane Coles (ed.), Othello, Cambridge School Shakespeare, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 233-5.
See Learner resource 4.
Presenting learners with a tabulated speech is a useful way of encouraging them to engage closely with Shakespeare’s lexical choices at particular, significant moments in the play.
Possible observations on the lexis of this speech foregrounded through tabulation include:
- A lexical field of words associated with service/servitude (‘master’/’masters’ (x3), ‘knave(s)’, ‘lords’, ‘homage’, ‘bondage’, ‘duty’ (x2), ’service’, ‘Follow’, ‘serve’, ‘Whip’, ‘duteous’, ‘knee-crooking’, ‘obsequious’, ‘ass’, ‘cashiered’): suggests Iago’s intense frustration at his subservience
- A lexical field representing service pejoratively (‘knee-crooking’, ‘doting’, ‘obsequious’): conveys Iago’s scorn for the subservient
- Lexical fields concerned with both outwardness (‘Forms’, ‘visages’, ‘Shows’, ‘coats’, ‘action’, ‘sleeve’, ‘seeming’, ‘trimmed’, ‘outward’, ‘extern’) and inwardness (‘heart’/hearts’ (x3), ‘soul’, ‘lined’, ‘truly’, ‘honest’, ‘native’): suggest Iago’s duplicity, the disparity between his inner and outer selves
- A cluster of proper nouns at lines 17-18 (‘Roderigo’, Iago, ‘Moor’): marks the point at which the speech shifts from the abstract to the particular
- The two names (‘Roderigo’, ‘Iago’) are juxtaposed with the impersonal ‘the Moor’: objectifies Othello and defines him in terms of his race
- Ten uses of the first person singular pronoun: suggests Iago’s profound self-centredness; nine of these clustered in the last 11 lines: the speech builds to an extended declaration of self
- With one exception, the last two lines contain only monosyllables: a staccato climax, suggesting aggression
- Harsh plosives in ‘daws’ and ‘peck’: contribute to the force and grotesqueness of the final, climatic image
- Repetition in final sentence, where one parallel clause negates the other, conveys the paradox of Iago’s identity: he is two (i.e. duplicitous) where he seems to be one (a man of integrity)
The concept of deviation is a potentially very useful one in enabling learners to select significant aspects of a text (or extract) for analysis. Put simply, if learners can learn to identify the places in a text where a writer deviates from what is expected of them, they are well on their way to starting to say something interesting about that text.
In order to apply this approach, it is logically necessary to define a linguistic ‘norm’ for the text you are studying. This may seem a rather artificial exercise, but it enables you to identify the potential deviations for that text. If the linguistic ‘norm’ for Othello is understood to be dialogue between two or more characters, written as declaratives, in the form of end-stopped lines of iambic pentameter, then the following can all be understood as deviations from that norm:
- extended speeches
- enjambment, caesurae
- split lines and half lines
- lines with an irregular stress pattern
- interrogatives, imperatives, exclamatives
- different verse forms (for example Desdemona’s song in Act 4, Scene 3)
Put learners into small groups, and give each group the same exam-length extract from the play and the above checklist. Ask them first of all to identify which of the possible ‘deviations’ are present in the extract, and to give examples. Next divide these forms of deviation up between the groups, and ask each group to comment on the use of their particular form: firstly in the context of the extract and then in relation to the play as a whole.
The following activity is intended to help learners maintain a sense of the play as something that exists in performance as well as on the page, and to encourage them to think about the interplay between language and the paralinguistic aspects of performance. It should help them gain a sense of how an actor’s gestures, expressions and use of voice are shaped by different influences – those of the playwright, the playscript editor and the director – and of how some of these aspects of performance are more prescribed than others.
Choose an extract or extracts from the play that contain both explicit stage directions and implicit ones (i.e. directions to the actors contained within, or suggested by, the dialogue). The last part of Act 3, Scene 3 would work well here (say from ‘Tell me but this’ to the end of the scene), as would the exchange between Othello and Desdemona in Act 4, Scene 2 (from the entrance of Desdemona and Emilia to ‘Impudent strumpet!’).
Put learners into groups and give each learner a copy of the extract you want them to work on. Ask them first of all to highlight the explicit stage directions (it would be worth explaining at this point that these vary slightly from edition to edition, and that even those in the First Folio, an edition of which can be viewed in the resource link - First folio edition of Othello, bear an uncertain relationship to Shakespeare’s own).
Next ask them to highlight those passages in the dialogue that seem to suggest a particular action, gesture or expression on the part of the actor, and annotate the text accordingly. Finally, they should ‘play director’ and consider how else the actors should perform the lines, again annotating the text.
Using their annotations as a guide, the groups are then ready to rehearse and perform their extracts, after which they should be prepared to discuss and justify their ‘directorial’ decisions. Though it would be interesting to use a range of extracts for this exercise, it will work best if there are at least two groups working on the same extract, so that the difference between the elements of performance prescribed by the text and those that are the result of decisions make by the actors and director are made evident in the performances.
See Learner resource 5.
Approaches derived from the study of spoken language can be useful in analysing dramatic dialogue if used judiciously: for suggestions about how conversation analysis can be applied to drama (as well as helpful comments on the differences between crafted dialogue and spontaneous conversation), see Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, Language and Literature: An EMC Coursebook (London, English and Media Centre, 2015), pp. 147-9.
Another approach to spoken language that can constructively be applied to Othello is Labov’s theory of the structure of oral narratives. Story-telling is a distinctive feature of the play, and applying Labov’s structure, as well as his commentary on the power and value of story-telling, to the individual stories narrated in it, is illuminating in suggesting how those stories function in their immediate context and in the play as a whole.
The four stories are:
- Othello’s account to the Venetian Senate of how he wooed Desdemona: a story within a story! (Act One, Scene Three, ‘And till she comes . . . let her witness it’).
- Othello’s story of the handkerchief (Act Three, Scene Four, ‘That handkerchief . . . therefore look to’t well’).
- Desdemona’s telling of the tale of Barbary (Act Four, Scene Three, ‘My mother had a maid . . . like poor Barbary’).
- Othello’s story of the Turk (Act Five, Scene Two, ‘And say besides . . . He stabs himself’).
See Learner resource 6.
In many ways, Othello can be seen to be as much about gender as it is about race. A useful way of exploring the attitudes to women expressed in the play, as well as the structural relationship between the three female characters, is by hot-seating them. To ensure that this exercise is firmly rooted in Shakespeare’s language, it would be worth considering the ways in which Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are referred to by the other characters (including each other), before you begin the hot-seating, using Learner resource 6.
It can work well to give learners some pre-prepared questions, while also allowing them to devise their own. A mixture of questions that explore the attitudes, values and emotions of the characters (for example, ‘What are your views on marriage?’), with more ‘metadramatic’ questions (for example, ‘Why do you think Shakespeare put you in his play?’) will encourage learners to reflect on the dramatic function of the female characters. And though learners may well want to devise questions that are specific to each of the three women, posing some of the same questions to all three of them will help to reveal their similarities and differences: in other words their structural relationship to each other.
A useful collection of sources on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century attitudes to women can be found in Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, Studying Othello (London, English and Media Centre, 2003), pp. 13-14 (though of course it is always worth persuading learners to consider to what extent Shakespeare might be challenging such views).
As already suggested, one of the more uncomfortable, not to say uncanny, aspects of Othello is the closeness of the relationship between its hero and villain: formally as well as socially, psychologically and emotionally. One aspect of this eerie closeness is the two characters’ analogous ability to persuade. Though Othello, despite his disingenuous description of himself as ‘rude’ of speech, is a powerful rhetorician in the traditional sense, Iago is also exceptionally – indeed terrifyingly - skilful in the way he uses language to persuade.
An entertaining way of encouraging learners to reflect on this aspect of the relationship between the play’s hero and villain, while consolidating their understanding of the two characters’ rhetorical styles, is to stage a debate around which character is the greatest persuader. Each team should start to prepare a case by listing all the occasions on which either Iago or Othello persuades another character of something, or to do/not do something; they should then find examples of the rhetorical means by which their character achieves this. This information will form the basis for their speeches. You many find that your learners start to imitate some of the rhetorical techniques used in the play – consciously or unconsciously – as they debate the relative merits of its two rhetoricians.
For Othello’s rhetoric, see S. Adamson et al., Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: A Guide (London, Arden, 2001).
See Learner resource 7.
For evidence of attitudes to race in Shakespeare’s day, and examples of criticism on the subject, see Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, Studying Othello (London, English and Media Centre, 2003), pp. 14-15, 89-91.
See Learner resource 8.
Learner resource eight is a selection of extracts from a range of criticism on Othello: some very brief and some more extensive. Enlarge the extracts and put them up on the walls around your classroom. Allow learners time to wander round the room, reading and reflecting on the extracts, and then ask them to choose one that they either agree or disagree with strongly. They should then find two pieces of evidence from the play to support their view, before taking up their physical positions next to their chosen extracts, and defending their critical positions, using the evidence they have selected.
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