Daniel Kelley, Judith Westley, Nina Adel, Graham Harkness
Literature, Communication, Higher Education, Composition and Rhetoric
Material Type:
Homework/Assignment, Lecture Notes
High School, Community College / Lower Division
  • Composition 2
  • Drama
  • Drama Activities
  • English 101
  • Essay
  • Lesson
  • Literature
  • Literature Analysis
  • Tennessee Open Education
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    Drama Unit

    Drama Unit


    This resource provides lecture notes and writing assignments for the study of drama. While Othello and Trifles are mentioned specifically, these notes and assignments can be adapted and applied to practically any play.  

    Unless otherwise noted, the materials in this unit are licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

    Lecture: Literary Terminology - Drama

    The literary terms used to discuss short fiction (and fiction in general) apply, as well, to drama. However, two literary conventions are unique to dramatic productions: the aside and the soliloquy.

    Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson provide thorough definitions of each term: 

    aside - a brief speech in which a character turns from the person being addressed to speak directly to the audience; a dramatic device for letting the audience know what a character is really thinking or feeling as opposed to what the character pretends to think or feel.

    soliloquy - a speech in which a character, alone on the stage, addresses himself or herself; a soliloquy is a "thinking out loud," a dramatic means of letting an audience know a character's thoughts and feelings.

    While works of fiction typically rely on a narrator to reveal what the characters are thinking and how the characters are feeling, dramatic productions do not have narrators. Playwrights have devised these two conventions - the aside and the soliloquy - to bring the audience into the production and keep them apprised of the internal workings of characters. 

    As you read plays, pay close attention to the stage directions. Often, the author will indicate that a speech is an aside, typically by putting the word "aside" in parentheses or in italics. A soliloquy is usually indicated by the exiting of all but one character from the stage. 

    Fun fact: if you watch modern soap operas, you will see frequent use of the aside!

    Works Cited

    Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Edited by Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson, Harcourt, 2002.

    Lecture: Theory of Plot Structure

    Freytag's Theory of Five-part Plot Structure

    One of the most frequently cited literary theories is known as the Plot Pyramid or Plot Triangle. This theory asserts that all plots have five distinct, inter-locking parts: the Exposition, the Rising Action, the Climax, the Falling Action, and the Resolution or Denouement. The theory of five-part plot structure was developed in 1863 by a German literary critic named Gustav Freytag. Freytag wanted to know what made great stories great, so he spent years studying ancient Greek dramas and the plays of Shakespeare. Through his studies, Freytag determined that most stories follow the same pattern of development, which he organized into a triangle-shaped map to show how the parts of the pattern are connected. An example of this map is illustrated below:

    Image of Triangle


    The image of the triangle above shows how the five parts of a plot are linked together to induce feelings of increasing tension and suspense for the audience. Once the suspense peaks at the climax, the tension gradually recedes until the story provides a sense of closure for the audience.

    The different parts of the plot are defined as follows:

    Exposition: The introduction of the characters, setting and important background information. Think of this as the stable starting position for the characters.

    Rising Action: The character or characters face complications; the actions move toward the climax. The initial complicating action is sometimes referred to as the "inciting incident." The inciting incident is a conflict that disrupts the stable starting position.

    Climax: The action reaches a crisis or turning point. The remaining elements of the stable starting position that have persisted to this point are now eliminated. Think of this as the point of no return.

    Falling Action: The complications and conflicts unravel; the action moves away from crisis and towards resolution. 

    Resolution or Denouement: The complications and conflicts are worked out in a way that brings closure to the story, although the closure may not bring satisfaction. A new position of stability is achieved in the world of the story.

    Although Freytag developed his theory through studying plays, five-part plot structure is also used to analyze short stories and novels.


    Freytag's theory of plot structure is in the public domain.

    This explanation of Freytag's theory has this license: CC BY SA 4.0

    Lecture: Plot Structure of Othello

    Reading Quiz on Othello

    1. Which of the following is NOT a reason Iago seeks revenge on Othello?
      1. because he suspects Othello has had relations with Emilia
      2. because he hates the Moor
      3. because Othello is from another country
      4. because Othello promoted Cassio to lieutenant
    2. Why did Desdemona fall in love with Othello?
      1. his adventures and experiences in the military
      2. his eloquent speech and refined manners
      3. his rugged good looks
      4. his fancy horse
    3. What item does Iago plant in Cassio's chambers to trick Othello into believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful?
      1. a necklace
      2. a receipt from a fancy Italian restaurant
      3. one of Desdemona's slippers 
      4. a handkerchief
    4. How does Iago rise to the position of lieutenant/ensign?
      1. he arrests Montano for disorderly conduct in the piazza
      2. he seduces Desdemona
      3. he gets Cassio drunk and quarrelsome
      4. he defeats Lodovico in a fencing match
    5. How does Othello kill Desdemona?
      1. he drowns her 
      2. he smothers her
      3. he stabs her
      4. he poisons her
    6. What happens to Emilia at the end of the play?
      1. Othello kills her
      2. Iago kills her
      3. she flees Italy
      4. she is arrested as an accomplice
    7. Who serves as Iago's accomplice in deceiving Othello and setting up the chain of events that lead to the tragic ending?
      1. Brabantio
      2. Montano
      3. Lodovico
      4. Super Mario
      5. Roderigo
    8. When Cassio loses his position as lieutenant, who tries to help him mend his relationship with Othello?
      1. Desdemona
      2. Emilia
      3. Roderigo
      4. Bianca
    9. Which of the following characters does NOT die at the end of the play?
      1. Othello
      2. Emilia
      3. Roderigo
      4. Iago
    10. How does Brabantio (Desdemona's father) die in the story?
      1. he kills himself
      2. Iago kills him
      3. he dies of a broken heart
      4. he dies in battle against the Turks

    Plot Structure of Othello, the Moor of Venice

    Background information

    Othello is a Moor, or a person of color from North Africa. The play begins in Venice, Italy, where Othello is serving as general of the Venetian army. Venice was a predominantly white city, so although Othello is respected for his military prowess, he is also considered a foreigner in the land. Throughout the play, you will notice repeated references to black and white, or dark and light, symbols typically associated with good (light) and evil (dark).

    Before the story opens, Othello has secretly married Desdemona, a Venetian and the daughter of a senator (Brabantio).

    Roderigo, a Venetian, has tried—repeatedly and unsuccessfully—to woo Desdemona. He is devastated to learn of her marriage to Othello.

    Thus the story begins . . .


    Iago, the villain, tells Roderigo (a villain and Iago’s pawn) that Desdemona has married Othello. Iago and Roderigo then reveal to Brabantio that Desdemona and Othello have eloped. They suggest foul play or some type of deception, and Brabantio does, in fact, feel deceived.

    Iago explains his disdain for Othello. As an experienced military man, Iago was the likely candidate for a position as Othello’s lieutenant, or “ensign.” However, Iago was overlooked, and Michael Cassio, a younger and less experienced man, was promoted to lieutenant. Iago also believes that his wife, Emilia, has been unfaithful – with Othello.

    Iago is obviously a bit distrustful and insecure. He vows revenge on Othello.  

    Rising Action

    Iago plots to ruin Othello’s life by convincing him that Desdemona has been unfaithful—with Michael Cassio, of all people. Go figure.

    As he weaves his intricate web of deception, Iago preys on Othello’s insecurities: Othello is older than Desdemona; he is a dark-skinned man from another country, while she is a fair-skinned Venetian; he comes from a violent military background, while she is of noble birth. Yes, Desdemona loves Othello—but his insecurities about their differences render him vulnerable to Iago’s treachery.


    Events reach a turning point when Othello kneels and swears revenge on Desdemona for her (perceived) infidelity. Iago, at this point, has complete control over Othello and vows to kill Cassio as a demonstration of his loyalty to the Moor.

    Falling Action and Resolution (or Denouement)

    Once he has “proof” of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness (handkerchief), Othello smothers her in their bed. Iago wounds Cassio and kills Roderigo, who knew about all of Iago’s deception and, well, you know what they say about snitches. Emilia discovers what Iago has done and tells everyone; Iago kills her. Othello realizes he has been tricked, so he kills himself. Yes, it seems like everyone has died by the end of the play—remember that it is a Shakespearean tragedy. That’s what typically happens.

    Discussion Board: Dear Diary - Insight into Othello Characters

    This assignment could be used as either a discussion board post in an online class, or a short written assignment in a face-to-face class.

    Dear Diary: Insight into Othello Characters

    In this discussion post, you will practice analyzing some characters in Othello by William Shakespeare. Identify a key moment in the story and write diary entries from the perspective of one of the major characters involved. Imagine yourself as the character, and share what you think that character’s thoughts and feelings might be in the moment you selected. Do not summarize the selected portion of the play, and do not simply restate what the character says in the scene. Instead, step back from the action of the story and, using your imagination, create a plausible diary entry that reveals the character’s attitude, outlook, thoughts, and feelings regarding the other characters and the events that are unfolding in the scene you chose.

    Required Reading/Watching: 

    Othello by William Shakespeare


    This discussion assignment is designed to help you understand the characters in Othello as people like you, your friends, and family. The "diary" structure is a familiar and contemporary type of writing that lets you see Shakespearean characters from a modern perspective.

    Learning Outcome(s) Addressed: 

    • Analyze and interpret works of drama
    • Document the use of a work of drama in MLA style


    In this assignment, you will practice these skills:

    • Reading comprehension of a challenging text
    • Choosing support from a text for your ideas
    • Integrating M.L.A.-style direct quotations from Shakespeare into your own writing


    To complete this assignment you should:

    1. Choose from the following major characters: Othello, Desdemona, Iago, Emilia, Cassio, Brabantio, Roderigo
    2. Write a total of three (3) diary entries; each entry should be a well-developed paragraph of ten to twelve (10-12) sentences.
    3. Include no more than two (2) direct quotations in each entry.
    4. Title each entry by providing the character’s name, the act, and the scene number.
    5. After posting your original diary entries, respond to the posts of at least two classmates. Your responses should be about 150 words each.

    Additional Instructions:

    • You may select one character and write all three paragraphs from that character’s perspective, or you may select two or three characters and write an entry for each character – the choice is yours.
    • Your three entries must come from three separate acts.
    • Your direct quotations must be formatted using M.L.A. style and cited within the text.

    Assignment: Drama Analysis Essay

    Drama Analysis Essay

    In Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and in William Shakespeare’s Othello, much of the excitement comes from the audience’s awareness of events that some of the characters are unaware of. As a result, the audience members (viewers or, in our case, readers) experience feelings of suspense and anticipation as they await for events to unfold or for characters to become aware of what is actually going on.

    For this assignment, write an essay of 500 words or so comparing and/or contrasting how the authors manage to keep the audience informed while keeping certain characters unaware. Use elements of drama terminology such as aside and soliloquy as you discuss the writers’ strategies. What other elements play a role? Consider stage directions and dialogue as you analyze how Glaspell and Shakespeare manage to bring the audience “into” the performance.

    This assignment has two separate phases, both of which are completed for a grade. During the first phase, you compose a rough draft for your paper and submit it to the Peer Review Workshop discussion topic, where you will give and receive feedback from your peers. During the second phase, you revise your draft and submit it for a grade in the appropriate assignments folder.

    The rough draft should be a true attempt at the essay. Therefore, the instructions for the essay are presented first on this page. After you have read and understood these instructions, read the instructions for the Peer Review process by navigating to the page titled "Assignment: Essay Rough Draft + Peer Review Workshop"

    Required Reading/Watching: 

    The required plays for this unit (Othello and Trifles)


    One of your goals is to reveal how dramatic performances (or scripts, in this case) manage to pull the audience into the story in a way that other genres do not. The result is a unique participatory experience that has engaged audiences since ancient times . . . and continues today (think of the films you enjoy).  

    Learning Outcome(s) Addressed: 

    • Analyze and interpret works of drama
    • Select and integrate research from a secondary source
    • Document the use of a work of drama in MLA style
    • Produce a written essay that compares and contrasts two different literary works of drama


    While completing this assignment, you will practice:

    • Critical thinking
    • Analytical writing
    • Researching


    This assignment will help you develop the ability to compare two similar things; in the process, you will become more adept at discerning how two things are similar and how they are different. This increased discernment will help prepare you for future papers in this course. In addition, the ability to compare and contrast two things is an important skill for most jobs.


    To complete this assignment you should:

    1. Read and ANNOTATE both plays
    2. Read the Writing Aids for this essay
    3. Find a source in the college's library database
    4. Compose your rough draft
    5. Upload your rough draft to the Workshop discussion topic
    6. Revise your rough draft after you receive feedback on it
    7. Submit your final, revised essay to your instructor for a grade

    Writing Aid: Organizing the Drama Analysis Essay

    Writing Aid for Drama Analysis Essay

    Your thesis statement for the Drama Analysis should make an assertion about the methods the writers use and the effects of audience awareness on the dramatic experience. Here is a template you may use as you develop a working thesis statement:

    Both Glaspell and Shakespeare use [fill in your own ideas here] to pull the audience into the performance and develop, as a result, [fill in your own ideas here]. Your job as writer is to fill in those blanks.

    You may certainly follow a different format as you formulate your thesis. If you have questions about the suitability of your thesis statement or your focus, please feel free to contact your instructor.

    As you develop your body paragraphs, be sure to include specific evidence from the plays to support and illustrate your claims. Consider the following questions as you plan your paper:

    • What information, for example, do audience members have that characters in the play do not have?
    • How, exactly, do the writers keep their characters unaware while letting the audience know vital plot details or background information?
    • What are the effects of the discrepancies between what the audience knows and what the characters (do not) know?
    • How effective are the writers’ strategies of keeping the audience informed?  

    You should devote one or two body paragraphs to Trifles, and one or two body paragraphs to Othello (in whatever order you prefer).

    Writing Aid: M.L.A. Style for the Drama Analysis

    M.L.A. Style for Drama Analysis

    This writing aid provides information about how to correctly cite plays using M.L.A. style. You will need this information to successfully complete your Drama Analysis Essay.


    Your sources for the Drama Analysis Essay will be the two plays we have read, which means you will absolutely have to use direct quotations from the text to support your body paragraphs. This paper requires one (1) secondary source; to locate secondary sources, please use the literary databases accessible through the library homepage. Study guide websites  (Sparknotes, ClassicNotes, Shmoop, et al.) CANNOT be used as sources. Document all sources accordingly. Attach a works cited page that includes the two primary sources and any secondary source you used.


    Use standard MLA formatting (12 pt, Times New Roman/Calibri, double spaced with one inch margins). Write in complete sentences and construct well-structured paragraphs complete with transitional words and phrases.  Lengthwise, you should end up with a 500 word essay plus a works cited page.

    In-Text Citation Information for Drama

    In classic dramas like those by Shakespeare, an individual character's lines are separated within your text by a slash (/): "For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart." (1.1.8-9). DO NOT use page numbers to reference quotations.  Instead, cite by using the title of the play, the act, scene, and line numbers. Example: (1.1.8-9) is the in-text citation which refers to Act 1 Scene 1 Lines 8-9 of Hamlet.

    If you are quoting actual dialogue, you must set your text off like you would a block quotation (indent one inch). You should also include a proper signal phrase to introduce the quotation and set it up within context:

          As Mrs. Hale begins to understand the severity of Minnie Wright’s isolation on the farm, she expresses misgivings about not visiting her:

    MRS. HALE: I could’ve come. I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful—and that’s why I ought to have come. I—I’ve never liked this place. Maybe because it’s down in a hollow, and you don’t see the road. I dunno what it is, but it’s a lonesome place and always was. I wish I had come over to see Minnie Foster sometimes. I can see now—[Shakes her head.]

    MRS. PETERS: Well, you mustn’t reproach yourself, Mrs. Hale. Somehow we just don’t know how it is with other folks until—something comes up.

    MRS. HALE: Not having children makes less work—but it makes a quiet house, and Wright out to work all day, and no company when he did come in. Did you know John Wright, Mrs. Peters? (Glaspell)

    *In the above example, there are no line numbers, and the quotation is from a one-act play. Furthermore, the text of the play is online, so there are no page numbers to include in the parenthetical citation. Thus, the author’s name is all you need to include in the citation.  
    In modern dramas that lack line numbers, cite the page number but reference the act and scene in a signal phrase.

    Short Writing Assignment: Understanding Historical/Cultural Context in Trifles

    Quiz on M.L.A. Style for Drama

    1. Pretend you are quoting from Act 1, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare's Othello. The passage that you quote consists of lines 127 to 132. Build the parenthetical citation that should follow the quotation. Include all required elements, and punctuate properly. 
    2. When quoting from a play, how should you indicate line breaks?
      1. slash
      2. semicolon
      3. colon
      4. dash
    3. When quoting from a play, you should always use a signal phrase or attribution to introduce the quotation and establish its context.
      1. True
      2. False
    4. As long as you mention the author and the title of the play in your essay, you do not need to include a Works Cited entry for the play.
      1. True
      2. False
    5. If you are quoting from a play that has no line numbers, how should you indicate where the quoted material comes from? You have already mentioned the author's name in a signal phrase. Select all that apply.
      1. include act, scene, and page number
      2. include only the page number if it is a one-act play
      3. send your instructor an email explaining where the material came from
      4. include nothing if the play is accessed online and has no page numbers

    Understanding Historical/Cultural Context in Trifles

    In this short writing assignment, you will use your research and writing skills to analyze a specific detail in Trifles. The men in the play overlook all of the clues that indicate Minnie Foster’s reason for killing her husband. The women, on the other hand, pick up on seemingly insignificant details (“trifles,” according to the men) that point to Minnie’s motive. Below are some of the details from the story that indicate how difficult early-20th century farm life was, particularly for farmers’ wives:

    • dirty towels (laundry)
    • unwashed pans
    • bread “set” 
    • table half-cleaned
    • preserved fruit
    • quilt in progress 
    • using a wood stove to cook and heat
    • isolation of the typical Midwestern farm

    For this Short Writing Assignment, you should write two (2) paragraphs. The first paragraph should explain how one of the details in the list above is overlooked by the men in the play. In other words, discuss the context in which the detail comes up; who notices or mentions the detail? What tone does the character use when talking about the detail? How do the men’s views differ from the women’s views? Use at least one quotation from the play to illustrate or support your point. 
    For your second paragraph, conduct some research on the topic/detail you selected from the list and write a fully-developed paragraph explaining the process, highlighting all of the difficulties and laboriousness of the chore or detail you selected. For example, what specific steps would have been involved in preserving fruit in the early 1900s? How labor-intensive was the process? Consider the laundry situation: without a washing machine and dryer, how would a farmer’s wife wash clothes, towels, and bedding? Keep in mind that few farms had electricity, and indoor plumbing was not an option. Your goal in this paragraph is to reveal how much work a 20th century homesteader had to do on a daily basis, so be sure to use vivid and specific details. Use at least one quotation from the source you used, and provide a proper MLA-formatted Works Cited entry for your source. 

    Required Reading/Watching: 


    Learning Outcome(s) Addressed: 

    • Analyze and interpret works of drama 
    • Document use of literary sources in MLA style 
    • Select and integrate research from a secondary source 


    This assignment will focus on these skills:

    • Reading comprehension
    • Critical thinking
    • Researching secondary sources


    This assignment helps you practice finding and applying research sources on a small scale, to prepare for conducting more extensive research for your essays that come later in the course.


    To complete this assignment you should:

    1. Identify a small detail in the play that the male characters overlook. You can use something from the list above, or you can identify a different detail.
    2. Write one paragraph about 250 words long discussing the context of the detail
    3. Use the college's library database to conduct research about the chore or detail you selected.
    4. Write a second paragraph that incorporates your research
    5. Cite your research in M.L.A. style
    6. Include a Works Cited page