What is Close Reading?
Close reading simply means you read slowly and carefully, making sure you understand every word and take the time to talk about all the implications along the way. Download this Readers' Edition of ten pages of Othello, Act 4, scene 1, and go through it carefully with a friend or two. It will help you become aware of talking points such as these, below. When you have read through and discussed the scene with the prompts that are on the pages, read the scene again straight through—you will be amazed at how much richer and more comprehensible it all appears.
After spying on Cassio supposedly talking about being with Desdemona, a scene that Iago has set up, Othello has an epileptic fit and falls in a trance on the ground; Iago stands over him, a reversal of the power structure. Take a moment to talk about this visual image and what it implies.
Notice how Iago’s speech pattern—disjointed, abrupt, crude—eventually transfers to Othello; Othello's eloquent speech pattern starts to disintegrate. What does that indicate?
Note the structure of the conversation between Iago and Othello after Cassio leaves: Othello says, essentially, “I hate her—but I love her,” and Iago says no, you don’t love her; Othello agrees and says, “I hate her—but I love her,” and Iago tells him, no, you don’t love her. What does this inform the reader of Othello's state of mind—and Iago's manipulations?
Othello tells Iago to get some poison so he can murder Desdemona, but Iago insists that Othello should strangle her in her bed. Why would Iago prefer strangling to poison?
(Using OpenSourceShakespeare.com, we see that the word poison is used nine times in this play. Does that imply something? Note how the word is used in each instance.)
Othello’s response to Iago's suggestion of strangling in her bed is, “Good, good: the justice of it pleases: very good.” Consider why Othello feels that strangling in her bed is “justice.” An actor playing Othello must be convinced that Othello truly believes this. Is that possible?
Or try the first 200 lines of King Lear with this example formatted and edited specifically for reading out loud together. You don't need an “expert" to lead you through it—just jump in!
Participating in a close read
In a close reading, someone might want to take on the responsibility of looking up words in the OED or Schmidt's Lexicon; another might have an interest in mythology and provide background on the mythological references; someone else might have knowledge about the symbolism of stones, plants, animals and birds, even days of the week and cardinal directions—all have symbolic meaning in Shakespeare (see our [upcoming] presentation on symbolism).
It's particularly great if someone wants to study up on rhetoric, the art of persuasion, because Shakespeare is a breathtaking master of this art form. It's very insightful and downright fun to see the mechanics of how Shakespeare manipulates us as Readers, and in this process we have a clearer idea of just what an astounding writer Shakespeare is. It also offers insights into elements that the playwright [apparently] wants us to particularly notice.
Another insightful topic is the humours, the four bodily fluids that create our temperament. Once you understand the basics of the humours, you understand why neither Petruchio nor Katharina are allowed to eat the roast meat in The Taming of the Shrew; why Beatrice, in the middle of Much Ado About Nothing, suddenly gets a cold and Benedick has a toothache; why Othello has epilepsy.
Encourage your Readers to explore topics they find interesting, such as the history of the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire when you read the Roman plays; life in Elizabethan England when you read The Merry Wives of Windsor; the historical characters in the English history plays; the predicament of Jewish people both in England and in Venice when The Merchant of Venice was written, etc.
If you have local experts on hawking, Elizabethan history, medieval renaissance cooking, ancient weaponry, or anything you might find topical in a play, ask them to come talk to your reading group about it.
You are a community! Do not depend on one person in your group to tell you what to think about everything—spread the wealth! We ALL have something to offer in the remarkably rich world of Shakespeare!