William Shakespeare’s tragic drama Othello has been given high marks by some critics and low marks by others. Let us elaborate on this problem in this essay.
In the volume Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley explains why the modern audience feels so exasperated when viewing this play:
But Othello is not freed by this sense of his own situation: he has been caught in it as if in a snare. And instead of being freed by the hero’s consciousness of things, and sharing it with him, we are forced to stand outside Othello’s delusion. The play grips us in its own artifice of incomprehension. And for most onlookers, nowadays, the sensation seems to be more exasperating than it is either thrilling or painful. (200-201)
The feeling of exasperation on the part of the audience is not universal. Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes explains the factor that made Othello significant among the tragedies of its time:
The Moor goes to the task of killing his wife in the name of justice;
Thy bed, lust-stain’d, shall with lust’s blood be spotted.
And in the second scene, the scene of the murder, he cries again as he looks upon the sleeping Desdemona and kisses her:
Oh, balmy breath, thou dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!
It is this insistence upon the passion which makes men try to take the place of God, and by private revenge execute the laws of God that makes Othello significant in the tragedy of its time. Othello sees his acts as the expression of justice, worked out in the most perfect balance of deed and punishment. (172)
If the justice aspect of private revenge gave the play popularity then, what gives it fame today? Othello would appear to have a beauty about it which is hard to match – thus ranking the play high. Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” touches on this beauty which enables this play to stand above the other tragedies of the Bard:
Among the tragedies of Shakespeare Othello is supreme in one quality: beauty. Much of its poetry, in imagery, perfection of phrase, and steadiness of rhythm, soaring yet firm, enchants the sensuous imagination. This kind of beauty Othello shares with Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra; it is a corollary of the theme which it shares with them.