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Two plays on identity: Twelfth Night and Othello

September 20, 2021 by Maria Cleary

Twelfth Night and Othello both bring exciting contemporary topics and language resources to your English language classes. These exciting new additions to the Helbling Shakespeare series (after Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth) will entertain and amaze your students, and they will also make them think, talk, do research and perform. Let us tell you how.

The Helbling approach to Shakespeare

Working with Shakespeare’s plays in the language classroom at B1-B2 levels can be intimidating even for experienced teachers. The Helbling approach to the plays is based on the firm belief that Shakespeare’s work is an essential part of the English language and culture and thanks to the modernity of their themes, once students get into them, they will easily forget any preconceptions they may have that the Bard is 'difficult' or 'boring', The plays are presented through a series of 8 key scenes, each one complete with a parallel modern English summary. Before each scene there is a guided discussion with summaries of what has happened between each of the chosen excerpts. Then, we move on to some comprehension and language analysis before looking at the lexical aspects of the excerpt (expanding them into modern English usage), and cultural and historical aspects of the scene. And you can do more with Shakespeare’s plays. Since they were written to be performed, the Helbling approach encourages performing some parts of the play in class, and each chapter contains a From Reading to Performing spread, with practical advice and activities which cover all aspects of performing: from script to stage directions, props to lights and the performance itself. Such an approach makes reading the plays an interactive and engaging experience in which the students create memorable situations for themselves and will remember the linguistic, cultural and historical aspects of the Shakespeare experience.

Before you read our detailed introduction to working with these plays, watch actor and trainer Teresa Brett’s video tips about performing them with language learners.

The two plays: Twelfth Night and Othello

These two Helbling editions have been edited for B1+ and B2 level language learners with age- and level-appropriate activities to keep your students busy after reading the selected scenes. Why are they good choices for teenagers?

Both plays present contemporary issues of identity, belonging and dealing with our own feelings in a comedy (Twelfth Night) and tragedy (Othello). They both take us to fascinating places: Illyria (Twelfth Night) and Venice and Cyprus (Othello). An interesting aspect of reading Shakespeare’s plays is that we get to know from the very beginning how the plot might end based on the genre of the play. We have typical genre expectations when it comes to comedies and tragedies, and the Bard’s genius takes us on a lyrical adventure through the plot. 

Discussion tips: 
  • Ask your students what they expect to experience in a comedy or a tragedy. 
  • Then, collect information about the settings.
What are the plays about?

As we mentioned, both plays address the question of identity in different contexts. 

In Twelfth Night, after a violent storm Viola is separated from her twin brother Sebastian and shipwrecked on the island of Illyria. She disguises herself as a boy and enters into the service of Duke Orsino who sends her to court Olivia for him. But Olivia falls for Viola instead while Viola becomes infatuated with the duke. Raising questions of what attracts us to a person, their gender or their essence.

In Othello, Othello and Desdemona fall in love and get married. But Othello is a Moor and Venetian society does not approve of the union and conspires, through the envious Iago, to destroy the match. As Othello’s sense of self crumbles he brings destruction to his marriage with Desdemona.

Why work with these plays?

Just like every other Shakespeare play, these plays raise contemporary issues in an exciting manner that teenagers will find fascinating.

In Twelfth Night, we find ourselves in an exhilarating comedy only modern TV series can reproduce, with misunderstandings, cross-dressing and disguise. The play raises the question of where our true identity comes from and how it can be represented. The outer layer of who we are is the clothes we wear and it shows that in a social context, people often judge us based on our looks. In our times, our clothes do not necessarily reflect who we are, but they definitely influence how people perceive us. 

How gender is represented and perceived is also an important question in the play. What were the most typical social and cultural traits expected from a woman and a man in Shakespeare’s time? How have they changed since then? Are there still similar expectations in our times? How does our identity change in virtual worlds? These are all engaging questions for students to think and talk about in connection with the play.

In Othello, the question of identity is linked to the question of belonging and discrimination, which show the darker side of how our identity can be judged by society. Othello is much respected as a military official, but because of his social class and religion, he is an outsider. By marrying Othello, Desdemona also becomes an outsider, and when they move to Cyprus, she sees the other side of the story: there she becomes an outsider as a white Christian woman. 

Cultural development through the plays

The Helbling Shakespeare series dedicates a double page after each scene to an aspect of Elizabethan history and culture. Browsing the Helbling editions, you will find projects that introduce your students to different aspects of Shakespeare’s plays, such as verse, prose and comedy. In Twelfth Night, you can learn about and research the Twelve Days of Christmas, courtship in Shakespeare’s time, puritanism, sailors and privateers, and music. In Othello, you will learn about the history of the time and visit Florence, Venice and Cyprus.

Some questions to consider / research:
  • Why does the title Twelfth Night mean? 
  • Why is it significant that Othello is the Moor?

The language of the plays

Apart from the vital issues the plays raise, they also give us a lot to talk about in terms of language development. The creative and poetic use of language is one of the most powerful aspects of the plays. Each scene is available as a fully dramatized audio which you can listen to either on the Helbling Media App or download from Helbling e-zone. The recordings guide the students in understanding and allow them to savour the beauty of Shakespeare’s spoken language.

Each chapter in the Helbling Shakespeare titles focuses on a language aspect and works with a famous quote so that your students will remember language use in context. Here are some examples for discussion.

Here are some famous quotes and phrases from the plays.

Twelfth Night

  • If music be the food of love, play on.

(Orsino, Act 1 Scene 1)

  • Even so quickly may one catch the plague? 

(Olivia, Act 1 Scene 5)

  • Poor lady, she were better love a dream.

(Viola, Act 2, Scene 2)


  • But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/ For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

(Iago, Act 1 Scene 1)

  • She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d / That heaven had made her such a man

(Othello, Act 1 Scene 3)

  • O, beware, my lord, of jealousy: / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.

(Iago, Act 3 Scene 3)

Adaptations of the plays

Every Shakespeare play has been adapted and modernized hundreds of times. Rewritings and adaptations are great ways to engage with the plays and make your students think about why they are evergreen stories that live through generations.

  • Othello (1965) - A film based on the National Theatre Company's staging of the play with Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith
  • O (2001) - A modern film adaptation of the play set in an American high school

Read about the ten best Othellos on the Guardian website.

  • Twelfth Night (1996) - A film with Helena Bohnam-Carter, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthrone and Ben Kingsley

Read about the most recent Twelfth Night stage performance at Shakespeare's Globe.