Othello: its Universality Pro and Con

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Othello: its Universality Pro and Con

In the Shakespearean play Othello there are elements which the audiences of 400 years ago found appealing, and which the audiences of today find appealing. This is the secret of the universality of the drama – a quality which some critics question.

H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses the lack of universality in the protagonist of the play:

Still, the play is Othello’s story: he is central throughout. It is hard to sympathize with him very much if we consider him dispassionately, if we stop to reflect. He is such a simpleton, so easily hoodwinked, so childishly carried away by passion, so utterly incapable of taking thought. (55)

In agreement with Wilson are others. To the modern audience especially, the play’s biggest shortcoming may be the inability of the audience to relate to the protagonist. In the volume Shakespeare and Tragedy John Bayley explains why the modern audience has difficulty identifying with the protagonist in this play:

Othello’s need to kill Cassio and Desdemona belongs only to him; not only because we know it to be deluded, but because the nature and extent of the delusion is such that we cannot imagine ourselves becoming involved in it. We cannot justify and verify its necessity by our involvement. [. . .] But mind in Othello has walked into a trap, and the play both invites us in and keeps us out. We are close to Othello and yet alienated from him. (201)

To many, Othello would appear to have a beauty about it which is hard to match. Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” touches on this beauty which enables this play to stand a...

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...n, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.

-- -- --. “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. Rev. Ed. Rpt. from The Sewanee Review, LXIV, 1 (Winter 1956), 1-4, 8-10; and Arizona Quarterly (Spring 1956), pp.5-16.

Levin, Harry. General Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. No line nos.

Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Wilkie, Brian and James Hurt. “Shakespeare.” Literature of the Western World. Ed. Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992.
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