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Shakespeare on Trial: Was Othello guilty of murder?

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With his mind filled with poisonous thoughts planted by his friend Iago, Shakespeare's title character Othello strangles his wife, Desdemona, before taking his own life. But what would have happened if he'd been brought to justice in a 21st-century court of law? Twenty A level students from London found out with the help of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the National Justice Museum and Brunel University London.

In the three-day Shakespeare on Trial project – sponsored by Proskauer Solicitors and Brunel's College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences – the students experienced a rich variety of workshops in English, Law and Drama, assisted by the Globe Theatre and Brunel's Law and English students, culminating in the trial itself in a traditional courtroom in the Royal Courts of Justice.

"This project is a great way to engage students from our feeder schools and help them to explore the play in depth and from different angles, including from a modern-day legal perspective," said Dr Adrienne Barnett, Senior Lecturer at the Brunel Law School.

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Dr Adrienne Barnett (fifth from left) with Shakespeare on Trial A level students
outside the Royal Courts of Justice.

The A level students spent:

  • the first day at the Sackler Studios at Shakespeare's Globe, where they has a lecture and workshop on Othello with a Globe Education Practitioner and saw the play – with Sir Mark Rylance playing the role of Iago
  • a day at Brunel Law School and the English Department, immersing themselves in further discussion and discovery of Othello, preparing for the trial – and experiencing life as a university student
  • the final day at the Royal Courts of Justice, where the trial was staged with assistance from professionals – and Othello pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

For Brunel Law undergraduate and student ambassador Kishan Shah, it was a privilege to participate in the project. "The A level students developed confidence whilst structuring their arguments, and presented them exceptionally well in a real courtroom," he commented.

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Dr Adrienne Barnett with Brunel law students (left to right) Martina Caloi, Kishan Shah and John Foulser

The project was a widening access scheme aimed at increasing the number of students from under-represented groups participating in higher education, and involved schools from across West London.

Blessed Mereki, a teacher from Rosedale College in Hayes, said: "Shakespeare on Trial provided students with fantastic opportunities to deepen their understanding of Othello and to reinforce legal concepts in real and meaningful ways."

Dr Barnett added that it was "wonderful to see how the students' confidence and skills progressed over the three-day project".

And was Othello found guilty?

"After a fierce contest with some skilful and enthusiastic cross-examination of witnesses, Othello's manslaughter plea was thrown out," said Dr Barnett. "He was convicted of murder, despite the valiant case put forward by the defence team."

Find out more about Widening Access at Brunel, or our Law School and English Department.

Main image (CC): Othello weeping over Desdemona's body. Othello's Lamentation, by William Salter, 1857.

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268821
joe.buchanunn@brunel.ac.uk