Othello, as explained by Five Seconds of Summer
Listening to music while studying is usually not a good idea, but one educational consultant uses popular music to explain literary devices and reinforce plot points
By John Ryan
My educational consultancy RyJoLC.com provides English language and curriculum learning resources to schools worldwide. I use popular culture as a learning medium for all of my language learning resources. It’s really just a way for me to watch a lot of film and television while listening to music (often at the same time, which slows down my work rate due to my tendency to sing along), but it does have beneficial results.
Luckily, I’m not old enough yet that my taste in music is outdated, nor is it too niche: I listen to music that is as pop as you can come by, meaning that while some may disapprove of my musical preferences (family members, friends, strangers all included) the subject matter of my resources is usually familiar to my students. The result is that they are provided with familiar and hopefully interesting settings when encountering new subject matter, with the intention that this will help in the learning process.
It’s kind of like if I said that I’d teach you about epizeuxis, which, if you don’t know what it is, sounds very tedious and the sort of thing that will have you tearing your hair out until you have none left while simultaneously shaking your fist at whatever deity you believe in and bursting into tears at various occasions.
However, if I said that epizeuxis was present in Bruno Mars’ song Locked Out of Heaven it doesn’t seem so intimidating, because it’s likely you’ve at least heard of this (it was the fourth most played pop song on the radio in 2013 so fair play if you haven’t). As the song is linked to epizeuxis, your knowledge of it means you’re halfway there (well, sort of) as you are aware of the context and subject matter that the literary device inhabits: your knowledge of this will make realising what the device is and how it functions a lot easier than if you were learning it blind. In addition, such a method also has the benefit of showing how the English language is of worth outside of the academic arena, as it features in what I tell students is the “real world” (aka when you finish school!)
Recently I began using pop songs to illustrate various areas of the Leaving Certificate curriculum. This was obviously due to my flawed love of pop songs but also my belief that for areas such as comparative genres and themes you need to teach the student the concept before applying it to a large text that is 100-200 pages long.
A pop song is a perfectly succinct text to bring this about: it takes three minutes to listen to and is easily absorbed, while simultaneously possessing a deceptively large amount of subject matter such as a storyline, themes and narrative structure.
I set about to explain General Vision and Viewpoint, a genre in the comparative section of Leaving Certificate English paper 2 where students are asked to compare three texts under a certain genre.
General Vision and Viewpoint refers to whether a text provides an optimistic or pessimistic outlook of life. On a basic level you could take a show like Breaking Bad and say the outlook of life is pretty bleak as it features a protagonist, Walter White, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and as a result believes he must safeguard his family’s future before he passes away. However, due to his middle-class status and a lack of opportunity he sets about becoming a drug dealer, believing this is the only possible way to make money fast to ensure his family are looked after when he passes away. The lack of opportunity, as well as impending death, present life as a struggle with little respite from such and thus existence is shown to be definitely bleak.
To illustrate General Vision and Viewpoint, I used Demi Lovato’s song Really Don’t Care. I took four key topics that I tell students and teachers must be focused upon when considering the General Vision and Viewpoint of texts: the outlook revealed by the subject matter of a text; the aspects of life focused on by the text; characters presenting a bright or dark view of life; and the impressions given by the closing scenes.
The subject matter of the song features a boyfriend who dumps his partner (the singer) in a cruel manner. This creates a dark outlook as it shows the hurt individuals are capable of inflicting on others (we’ve all been there – how could s/he do that to me?!). The aspect of life focused on therefore is a declining relationship, which provides a similar viewpoint due to partners being shown to lack commitment. The singer herself, however, provides a bright outlook as she will not allow the break up to damage her self-esteem, defiantly saying “I really don’t care” (well done Demi, I’m usually not so graceful). The closing scene reinforces this positive view of life as the singer reveals she will not take her ex-partner back as hhe as treated her so poorly, which displays her strength of character .
I also use popular culture to assist students in their study of curriculum texts. This year’s Shakespearean text is Othello, and RyJoLC’s most recent resource aims to highlight the key events of the text through pop songs: this is once again designed to assist students in accessing the text by enhancing familiarity and interest.
Each act of the play is introduced through a pop song, with the lyrics referring to and highlighting particular events that take place in this section of the drama. Don’t Stop by Five Seconds of Summer is used to explore Act 1, with lyrics such as “You got me thinking that we could run away” representing how Othello wants to elope with his love Desdemona.
Act 2 is introduced by She’s So Perfect, a song by the same band: lyrics such as “Let’s get out, let’s get out, ‘Cause this deadbeat town’s only here just to keep us down” remind the student of how Othello and Desdemona leave Venice to begin their marriage in Cyprus, away from the latter’s father Brabantio, who does not approve of their marriage.
Act 3 is explained by Ariana Grande’s Problem, where she sings “Hey baby even though I hate ya, I wanna love ya, I want you!” Here the student remembers how Othello has become disillusioned with Desdemona’s supposed infidelity yet remains dependent on her love of his famous back story, as this fuels his pride.
Elsewhere, Ella Hendeson’s song Ghost dissects Act 4, where lyrics such as “My friends had you figured out/ Yeah, they saw what’s inside you” convey how Othello is now intent on punishing Desdemona for her supposed wrongdoing, but only as Iago has fooled him into believing that she was unfaithful.
RyJoLC provides resources using such a popular culture learning medium for any texts or English language area required by schools or educators. In addition, this month RyJoLC is providing free learning resources to students and schools for the comparative section of Leaving Certificate English paper 2. Further information and contact details for this or any other resources/ educational services can be seen at ryjolc.com.