Academics in Action

Shakespeare Class Grieves for Othello

by Samantha Woehl '15

ON A WARM OCTOBER DAY, students congregated on the patio at Hoover Hall to honor a significant loss. Somber faces gazed upon memorials set upon a table - yet these memorials were very odd.

There was a plush lamb wrapped in rubber snakes. An empty wine bottle with a vine sprouting out of it. A red-spotted handkerchief wrapped around a wooden sword. A broken telephone with skulls sitting on its buttons. A box wrapped in aluminum foil with a Barbie and mirror shards inside.

The memorials were created by the students themselves - and accompanied them as they presented eulogies related to the great Shakespearean tragedy Othello.

Assistant Professor of English Jonathan Burton, as part of his Shakespeare class, designed the memorial project to help students connect Shakespeare to their everyday lives - because tragedy doesn’t only strike characters like Othello and Desdemona. A memorial is an object that seeks to create an understanding of a loss.

“Ours is a culture in trauma,” said Burton. “We are at war. We suffered a significant trauma ten years ago with 9/11, which we are still feeling the effects of in multiple ways. We’re also in an economic trauma. What I’m hoping a project like this will do is not only help students better understand Shakespeare’s play, but also give them some tools for dealing with our own culture, which is so troubling in many ways.”

After dividing his students into small groups, Burton challenged them with the question: what can we learn from Othello’s tragedy?

For those who have yet to read Othello, the play is about a general, Othello, who is tricked into believing that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. It is the play's antagonist Iago - one of the greatest villains of all time - who is behind the rumor. Disastrously, the truth about Desdemona's innocence is only revealed after Othello, blinded by jealousy, kills her.

Many of the Othello memorials confronted not the loss of a character, but something that is very integral to the Whittier College education: communication. Most students attributed the deaths of Othello and Desdemona to the miscommunication in their marriage.

Student Cody Reese ’13 said in his eulogy, "In Memory of Communications Lost," that “intrapersonal misunderstandings and misgivings have a universally negative impact… It is for this reason that the memorial standing in front of you today is obfuscated within mirrored walls. It portrays the isolation and misdirection caused by avoiding constructive conversations.” The memorial at his side glistened with tin foil walls. Inside, there was a Barbie doll that represented Desdemona’s helplessness. Surrounding the doll were mirror shards, which bid mourners to reflect on their own relationships.

Senior Darren Taylor's poem “As if it Didn’t Have to be that Way” pointed out the ignorance of Othello and Desdemona. His group’s memorial consisted of a broken telephone with splintered, wooden skulls resting on the dial keys. “Sister, love doesn’t happen between ewes and goats," he read. "Your father sees you as a lamb. And how can a lamb want love when it comes with a sword… Sister, there is no love unless you’ve got some way to stand up for it.”

Burton’s students enjoyed the creative freedom they were given to create their memorials. Samantha Quintanar ’13 said, “The ability to present our thesis in the form of a memorial allowed us to go beyond the text and play and come up with our own meanings for Othello.” Her group’s project mourned the loss of Iago and included a memorial that resembled a rotting skull - representative of the ugliness of Iago's soul.

Although Othello's tragedy may have been written about 409 years ago, Burton's memorial project proved that readers can still take away lessons from the play to better their own lives. Afterall, love and humanity - for better or for worst - will always remain.