Othello’s Universality of Appeal

Othello’s Universality of Appeal

The Shakespearean play Othello has enjoyed popularity on the stage and in print for 400 years. What are the features which enhance this quality among readers? And what detracts?

Does the playwright’s use of “double time” contribute to its universality of appeal? In The Riverside Shakespeare Frank Kermode explains the advantages of “double time” to Shakespeare:

“Double time” is a classical topic of Othello criticism; one of its uses is to remind us that the play, more largely considered, is characterized by a kind of imaginative duplicity. Thus one can isolate a plot of monumental and satisfying simplicity without forgetting that the text can be made to support very different interpretations. The richness of the tragedy derives from uncancelled suggestions, from latent subplots operating in terms of imagery as well as character, even from hints of large philosophical and theological contexts which are not fully developed. (1200)

Additional reasons exist for such a broad appeal. Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains in broad terms the basis for the play’s universality of appeal:

If, however, the interpretation offered above is sound, Othello is clearly not without universal significance, for, apart from its dramatization of the difficulty of discovering reality behind appearance, its two main characters exemplify opposing principles which together constitute the human psyche. Othello believes in love, in complete commitment, in nobility, in vocation, and in absolutes. Iago believes in nothing, and least of all in other human beings. (39)

More reasons for the play’s popularity appear. A. C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, describes the modernity of the drama as a reason for its popularity:

One result of the prominence of the element of intrigue is that Othello is less unlike a story of private life than any other of the great tragedies. And this impression is strengthened in further ways. [. . .] But Othello is a drama of modern life; when it first appeared it was a drama almost of contemporary life, for the date of the Turkish attack of Cyprus is 1570. The characters come close to us, and the application of the drama to ourselves (if the phrase may be pardoned) is more immediate than it can be in Hamlet or Lear. Besides this, their fortunes affect us as those of private individuals more than is possible in any of the later tragedies with the exception of Timon.
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