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The inconsistent ranking by critics of the Bard of Avon’s tragic play Othello is the subject matter of this essay. Let’s study the possible causes of this problem.
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’. (139)
The play is so quotable; consider Desdemona’s opening lines before the Council of Venice: “My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty,” or Othello’s last words: “Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” Could the continuing reputation of Othello be attributed to the quotable “ultimate form” in which the Bard of Avon expressed his ideas?
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If we use the word “support,” however, we do name a way in which Shakespeare serves. It is the way of venerable texts whose authenticity has impressed itself on the human imagination: he has said many things in what seems an ultimate form, and he is a fountainhead of quotation and universal center of allusion. “A rose by any other name” comes to the mouth as readily as “Pride goeth before a fall,” and seems no less wise. A quotable line is one that has shed its context and taken on independent life. Very significantly, Shakespeare scenes and character relationships have also taken on independent life and have provided basic formulations upon which other writers rely. (24-25).
Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” ranks the play Othello quite high among the Bard’s tragedies:
Othello, written in 1604, is one of the masterpieces of Shakespeare’s “tragic period.” In splendor of language, and in the sheer power of the story, it belongs with the greatest. But some of its admirers find it too savage. . . .(131)
The Bard’s presentation of emotions, character, of good and evil actions that are down-to-earth – these are sometimes seen as the main reasons for the high ranking of Othello. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “The Engaging Qualities of Othello” maintain that the popularity of this play has been consistent for about 400 years and they tell why:
Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello has enjoyed popularity on the stage from the author’s time to our own. It has remained a living drama over the centuries because it treats emotions that are universal and persistent in human nature. Its characters do not exist on a plane far removed from ordinary life; we are not asked to witness the conflict of kings and conspirators beyond the experience of everyday people; we are not involved in the consequences of disasters on a cosmic scale; what we witness is a struggle between good and evil, the demonstration of love, tenderness, jealousy, and hate in terms that are humanly plausible. (126)
The realistic aspect of the play presents a full range of characters, a full range of emotions, a full range of motivations, a full range of actions – just as are present in real society. The down-to-earth consideration is very important to Othello’s enduring popularity.
Regardless of who views or reads Othello, he sees himself and his own situation reflected in the drama. Is this due to the multi-faceted aspects in which persons, places and things are presented by the writer. Robert B. Heilman in “The Role We Give Shakespeare” relates the high ranking of Shakespeare to the “innumerableness of the parts”:
But the Shakespeare completeness appears graspable and possessable to many men at odds with each other, because of the innumerableness of the parts: these parts we may consider incompletenesses, partial perspectives, and as such they correspond to the imperfect (but not necessarily invalid) modes of seeing and understanding practiced by imperfect (but not necessarily wrongheaded) interpreters and theorists of different camps. Each interpreter sees some part of the whole that does, we may say, mirror him, and he then proceeds to enlarge the mirror until it becomes the work as a whole (10).
Indeed, the reader finds a wide variety of “parts” from beginning to end of Othello. The large variety of “parts” in just the opening scenes testify to the accuracy of Heilman’s assertion. The audience meets initially a wealthy playboy Roderigo, a cunning military ancient Iago, and an esteemed senator of Venice, Brabantio. Scene 2 introduces the audience to the Moor, his lieutenant Cassio, and two groups of people (Brabantio’s search party and Cassio’s party from the council). Scene 3 involves the audience with the duke and senators of the council, Desdemona, a sailor, a messenger, officers, and attendants. The host of characters make for a complex number of parts. On top of this group, the audience is exposed to unending sequences of action, ceaseless presentations of motivations and causes for the actions, and other aspects of the play. The number of “parts” is very great; consequently the variety is very great, and, as Heilman says, there results this special quality of just about anybody in the audience being able to identify with some of these “parts.”
Another reason for the lofty ranking of Othello is found in what Northrop Frye in “Nature and Nothing” refers to as “human wisdom”:
If we pay more attention to the difference between poetic and other kinds of thought, and deal with such a word only in its specific dramatic contexts, our other and better feeling that Shakespeare’s plays take us into the very center of human wisdom will be justified. (37).
Such human wisdom can be found in Iago’s initial words to sleepy Brabantio: “Zounds, sir, y’are robbed! For shame, put on your gown! / Your heart is burst; you have lost half your soul.” Indeed, the disappearance of Desdemona from home would seem as such to an elderly father. Human wisdom is obvious again and again; for example, when the senator escorts the general to the council, the duke addresses the “valiant Othello” without even noticing the senator at first: “I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signior.” As Othello begins his address before council, he employs much wisdom in the first two verses: “Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, / My very noble, and approved good masters,” by being as complimentary as possible, it would seem. Once in Cyprus, Iago implements his plan to get Cassio drunk by using a group of revelers, knowing that the lieutenant could scarcely resist a bunch of guys. Later Iago sends Cassio to Desdemona because he wisely knows that she is so loving that she can’t resist his pleas to intercede with the general. There is even wisdom in the Moor’s final act of suicide, for he despairs at the thought of the grave mistake he has made (“O cursed, cursed slave!”)
Shakespeare’s human wisdom no doubt comes partially from his understanding of the workings of man’s mind. He possesses the ability to analyze in a psychological manner. Harry Levin’s General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare includes these comments regarding the psychological aspect of Shakespeare’s characters:
During the later eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s interpreters practiced what Bernard Shaw liked to call “Bardolatry.” They all but deified the Bard of Avon because he was the creator of so many characters who could be treated as if they were human beings – could be identified with, psychologized over [my italics], arraigned for moral judgment (2)
The knowledge of psychology is required for the final scenes with Desdemona, who is so innocent that she cannot comprehend the meaning of his words when the general calls her a whore. Contrasting the lady with her maid, the Bard displays a different, lower form of psychology when Emilia admits that she would commit adultery “for all the whole world,” but not for anything less. Likewise, the appearance of Bianca in pursuit of Cassio is quite psychologically justifiable with the given facts of the case. Even the total perversion of Othello’s mind by the lies of Iago is understandable, even to the point of the Moor desiring the death of both Cassio and his wife. The audience accepts developments in the narrative as reasonable because Shakespeare has laid the proper psychological groundwork for the audience.
M.H. Abrams in The Norton Anthology of English Literature attributes the dramatist’s superiority to the relevance of his themes and truth of his characters:
One preliminary document in the First Folio is by Shakespeare’s great rival, critic, and opposite, Ben Jonson. In it he asserts the superiority of Shakespeare not only to other English playwrights but to the Greek and Latin masters:
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
That tribute is the first formulation of a judgment often reiterated in later periods, explaining Shakespeare’s place at the very center of the English literary canon. Many earlier critics found Shakespearean “universality” displayed in the human truth of his characters and his enduringly relevant themes (467).
That the Bard’s characters are life-like has been previously stated; let’s treat here the “enduringly relevant themes.” The basic themes of the play are regarding love, jealousy and hatred, and racism. Desdemona’s love of Othello (not the only love in the drama) is innocent and pure; Iago’s jealousy of Cassio for the latter’s position and placidness is deep and bitter, likewise his hatred of the general for his “Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation, where each second stood heir to th’ first.” The racism is sprinkled throughout, from the “thick lips” to the “sooty bosom” to the “old black ram.” Are these themes still relevant today. Of course! Four hundred years later humanity is still engrossed with these themes in their daily living and relationships. And thus, Abrams would say, the popularity of Othello has four thematic reasons to perdure.
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)
Abrams, M. H. “William Shakespeare.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 1996.
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1981.
Bradley, A. C.. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1970.
Ferguson, Francis. “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet. N.p.: n.p., 1970.
Frye, Northrop. “Nature and Nothing.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Gardner, Helen. “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from “The Noble Moor.” British Academy Lectures, no. 9, 1955.
Heilman, Robert B. “The Role We Give Shakespeare.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
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.
Wright, Louis B. and Virginia A. LaMar. “The Engaging Qualities of Othello.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Introduction to The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare. N. p.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1957.