The Shakespearean drama Othello is recognized by literary critics, with few exceptions, as having a universal appeal. What are the reasons for this universality?
The universality of the play perhaps depends on the universal appeal of its main characters, for example Iago the antagonist. In the essay “Wit and Witchcraft: an Approach to Othello” Robert B. Heilman explains the universality of the antagonist:
As the spiritual have-not, Iago is universal, that is, many things at once, and of many times at once. He is our contemporary, and the special instances of his temper and style – as distinct from the Iagoism to which all men are liable – will be clear to whoever is alert to Shakespeare’s abundant formulations. Seen in limited and stereotyped form, he is the villain of all melodrama. He is Elizabethan – as Envy or Machiavel. And to go further back still, we see in how many parts of Dante’s Inferno he might appear. He could be placed among the angry and violent. But his truer place is down among those who act in fraud and malice – the lowest category of sinner who on earth had least of spiritual substance and relied most on wit. (342)
To the modern audience 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 ju...
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Heilman, Robert B. “The Role We Give Shakespeare.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, 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. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
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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