Othello’s Ranking Now and Then

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Othello’s Ranking Now and Then From Burbage’s day till the present, the Shakespearean drama Othello has ranked high on the charts. But how high? And when? And why? Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains the popularity which this play had at the time of its creation: Richard Burbage, the leading actor in Shakespeare’s company, played the part of the ‘grieved Moor’ and it was one of his greatest successes. We are told by Shakespeare’s neighbor, Leonard Digges, that audiences were bored with Jonson’s tragedies: They prized more Honest Iago, or the jealous Moor. (12) The ranking of this famous play is not cut and dried, totally clarified and undebated. A. C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, describes the equivocal ranking which some critics give this play: Or is there a justification for the fact – a fact it certainly is – that some readers, while acknowledging, of course, the immense power of Othello, and even admitting that it is dramatically perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest triumph, still regard it with a certain distaste, or, at any rate, hardly allow it a place in their minds beside Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth? (173-74) To many of the audience, 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. But Othello is also remarkable for another kind of beauty. Except for the trivial scene with the clown, all is immediately relevant to the central issue; no scene requires critical justification. The play has a rare intellectual beauty, satisfying the desire of the imagination for order and harmony between the parts and the whole. Finally, the play has intense moral beauty. It makes an immediate appeal to the moral imagination, in its presentation in the figure of Desdemona of a love which does not alter ‘when it alteration finds’, but ‘bears it out even to the edge of doom’.
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