Othello, a Novel
- Grades: 9–12
About this book
This retelling of Shakespeare's play recounts the story of Othello, a mercenary soldier who falls in love with the lord's daughter, Desdemona. Because Othello is black and Desdemona white, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding their marriage. It is, however, the underhanded maneuvering of Othello's friend, Iago, that ultimately leads to tragedy. Passed over for promotion time and again, Iago uses this opportunity to undermine Othello's position within the King's army. He plants seeds of doubt about Desdemona's fidelity. Once those seeds blossom, Othello's jealousy knows no bounds. He kills Desdemona in a rage, and then ends his own life as well.
Jealousy and suspicion. Love and trust. Racism and acceptance. All of these issues appear in Othello. How are they connected? How are they presented? What messages do readers carry away about these topics after reading this book?
There are multiple external conflicts (e.g., between Desdemona and Othello, Iago and Othello); however, it is Othello's internal conflicts that propel the plot. As Othello's trust in Desdemona's love begins to wane, his internal conflicts grow deeper. Compare Othello's musings about love (p.37, pp.43-44) with his thoughts and feelings once he suspects Desdemona loves another (p.104). What has caused Othello to change his mind? What is the conflict with which he now wrestles?
Lester notes in the introduction that he has changed the setting of the novel from Shakespeare's setting for the play. Is the setting crucial to the story or could this same story take place in another time, another country? Could this same story be played out in a more contemporary setting? Why or why not?
Following the pattern of a tragedy, each character within the novel possesses a fatal flaw, a character trait that leads to his or her destruction. Clues as to the nature of these flaws are carefully laid by the author throughout the story. Using the page numbers for reference, identify those flaws that ultimately lead to the death of Michael Cassio (pp.34, 87); of Iago's wife, Emily (pp. 91, 93, 134); of Desdemona (pp. 2, 5, 38); and of Othello (pp. 17, 26, 31, 125).
Iago, Emily, and Othello call one another by their original African names. The literal meaning of these names (p.15) also indicates something about the true nature of the three. What can a reader assume from the fact that only Emily, Iago, and Othello use these names?
How does each of the other characters react to the news of the marriage of Desdemona and Othello?
- Generally speaking, the villain is vanquished at the end of most novels. This is most certainly not the case with Othello. Why is only Iago left alive at the end of the novel? What does Lester mean when he states, "Iago is jealous incarnate"? (p.ix)
- Compare and contrast Shakespeare's play and Lester's novel. Lester provides the basic similarities and differences in the introduction to the novel. What other similarities and differences exist between these two versions of the same story?
- Lester provides a title for each chapter. Using only the chapter titles, predict what will occur in each chapter.
- Foreshadowing is a literary device employed by Lester. Readers can see evidence of Desdemona's fate (p.37), Othello's undoing (p.54), and Emily's betrayal at the hands of Iago (p.130). Trace other references to the tragic ending throughout the novel.
- 5. Defend or reject the following statements:
- There is never gain without loss. (p. 93)
- Desdemona's goodness leads directly to her death. (p. 88)
- Appearance is reality. (p.125)
- Death does not feel. (p.139)
- Love is a thief which plunders a man's soul and steals his spirit. (p.141).
Other books to compare and contrast
The Moves Make the Man, by Bruce Brooks (racism, trials of friendship)
Heartbeats, by Norma Fox and Harry Mazer (relationships among friends who love the same girl)
Other plays by William Shakespeare, especially King Lear and Romeo and Juliet
About the author
An award-winning author of books for children and young adults, Lester is a professor at the University of Massachusetts. He has been honored with a Newbery Honor Medal and numerous Coretta Scott King Awards for his works, which include retellings of the Uncle Remus stories, and his historical To Be a Slave. Lester also writes for adults, and his features on history of African-American literature appear regularly in professional journals.
Discussion guide written by Kylene Beers, Lecturer, Department of Library Science, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.