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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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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 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)
Does an additional reason for the unending fame lie in the great heterogeneity of characters and scenes and actions within the play? Robert B. Heilman in “The Role We Give Shakespeare” relates the universality 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. This is seen in the fact of about 20 characters with speaking roles; and in their variety of occupations from duke to clown; and in the numerous scene changes; and in the differentiation in speech, actions, manners between every single individual character.
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 play opens at night on a street in Venice, Italy, with a heated discussion between Iago, the general’s ancient, and Roderigo, a wealthy playboy. Both men consider it in their best interest to awaken the senator Brabantio from bed for the sake of recovering his lost daughter Desdemona, who has eloped with the Moor. The universality of the play mostly 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)
The first appearance of the protagonist is in Act 1 Scene2, where Iago is pathologically lying about Brabantio and himself and the ancient’s relations with the general and about everything in general. Othello responds very coolly and confidently to the pressing issue of Brabantio’s mob coming after him: “Let him do his spite. / My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints.” However, Cassio’s party approaches first, with a demand for the general’s “haste-post-haste appearance” before the Venetian council due to the Turkish attempt on Cyprus.
When Brabantio’s pack has drawn their swords with the intent to fight, Othello calmly states: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” He is in charge; the accused controls the mob. Politely he addresses the mob leader. “Where will you that I go / To answer this your charge?” Brabantio demands prison for the general, but this conflicts with the duke’s request for the general’s presence in council. When they have reappeared before the duke, the latter greets Othello immediately and respectfully (“Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you / Against the general enemy Ottoman.”), but doesn’t even notice the senator Brabantio (“I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signior.” Noble Othello obviously outranks even the senator, in the estimation of the city’s leader.
Brabantio’s serious charges are handled expeditiously, and even trivialized by so brief a consideration by the august body, who quickly rally around the general. The duke tells Brabantio, “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” – a compliment to Othello’s virtue and upstanding performance both presently in front of the senators and previously in battles.
Shakespeare’s development of Desdemona, Othello, Brabantio, Roderigo and Iago in the first several scenes of the play is so carefully done, so exquisitely executed, that these characters seem to come to life. They are very realistic. Brian Wilkie and James Hurt in Literature of the Western World examine the place of characterization in the universal appeal of the Bard:
Every age from Shakespeare’s time to the present has found something different in him to admire. All ages, however, have recognized his supreme skill in inventing sharply etched characters; it frequently happens that long after one has forgotten the exact story of a play one remembers its people with absolute vividness. It is true, paradoxically, that many of Shakespeare’s characters represent universal types.[. . .] Scores of them are fully realized persons, absolutely individualized new creations even when they are adapted from earlier sources.[. . .] More than anything else, it is his power to create such characters that has prompted extravagant praise of Shakespeare’s “godlike” genius. Some critics, in fact, have speculated about the characters, even those Shakespeare wholly invented, almost as though they had a real existence outside of the plays (2155-56).
Cassio’s ship lands first in Cyprus, before Iago’s and the general’s. While the lieutenant is chatting with Montano he heaps praise upon Othello: “Thanks, you the valiant of this warlike isle, / That so approve the Moor!” Eventually the third ship arrives with Othello. Instead of shouting orders about, he generously devotes his attention to those about him, beginning with his wife: “It gives me wonder great as my content / To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy!”
Next, the Moor shows consideration for the happiness of his soldiers by declaring a holiday of “feasting,” “sport,” “celebration,” since the Turkish fleet has mostly perished in the storm at sea.
Soon the machinations of Iago result in the drunkenness, misconduct and dismissal of Cassio from his lieutenancy. This is an emotional moment for the general since Cassio has been his friend for years. So at the time of the dismissal the general expresses his love for the lieutenant: “Cassio, I love thee; / But never more be officer of mine.” When Desdemona petitions her husband for the reinstatement of Cassio, the Moor commits himself to this generous act: “Let him come when he will! / I will deny thee nothing.” This is indicative of not only the general’s considerate, compassionate attitude, but also of the depth of his love for Desdemona. Despite such noble virtues within the Moor, 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)
Unfortunately, Iago is a consummate artist at lying; it’s a pathological problem with him. The consequence is that Othello, in his gullible innocence, gives credibility to the devious schemes devised by the evil and sick mind of his ancient. To the point where he advises Iago: “If more thou dost perceive, let me know more. / Set on thy wife to observe.” The “human wisdom” which the Bard uses in the interaction between Iago and those about him is another reason for the universal appeal of this play. Northrop Frye in “Nature and Nothing” refers to this “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).
As the situation worsens with Emilia’s surrender of the decorated handkerchief to her husband and the resultant observation of same in Bianca’s possession (“By heaven, that should be my handkerchief!”), along with Iago’s incriminating lies about the lieutenant and Desdemona, the general is won over bit by bit. He loses his equanimity (“Farewell the tranquil mind!”) and resolves: “Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!” and “Get me some poison, Iago, this night.” The perversion of Othello’s outlook is the masterful creation of the antagonist.
As the climax approaches, the audience, like Lodovico and Emilia, cannot believe their eyes. A slap of the hand is followed later that night by suffocation of the innocent Desdemona. Othello’s motivation in the deed is to remove from the world an unclean, faithless strumpet – a reason which is noble. Fortunately, even though after-the-fact, Emilia rises to the occasion and refutes the lies of her husband – at the price of her life. Her martyr-like example inspires Othello to sacrifice his life next to the corpse of Desdemona. He dies a noble death, just as he has lived a noble life.
The striking and powerful character of Othello, the totally innocent character of Desdemona, the criminally cunning character of Iago – these are unforgettable, lifelike creations of the Bard. Is characterization the main cause of the dramatist’s broad popularity? Harry Levin in the General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare finds other reasons for his appeal:
Universal as his attraction has been, it is best understood through particulars. Though – to our advantage – his creations are relatively timeless, they would not mean so much to us if they had not been timely in their day. Nor would they have made their lasting impact, if their author had not been past master of his exacting and exciting medium, linguistic, poetic, dramatic.[. . .] The book-learning that Shakespeare displays here and there is far less impressive, in the long run, than his fund of general information. His frame of reference is so far-ranging, and he is so concretely versed in the tricks of so many trades, that lawyers have written to prove he was trained in the law, sailors about his expert seamanship, naturalists upon his botanizing, and so on throughout the professions (2-4).
Shakespeare’s universality – his ability to please every taste, to win “all men’s suffrage,” in Ben Jonson’s phrase – was compounded out of his very heterogeneity, his appeal to individuals through a concrete understanding of their concerns (18).
The playwright’s universal acceptance among audiences is rooted in the fact of viewers’ ability to identify with the characters. This phenomenon is incredible. Heilman comments on it:
He is claimed for different varieties of Christian thought, and as a voice of paganism; as a man of tragic vision, and as a grim cynic; as a representative of different sexual natures; as a lover of flowers, and a hater of animality; as a pure theatrical entertainer, and as a philosopher in drama; as a universal artist, and as a spokesman for the views and attitudes of his own day (9).
The ability of the audience to identify with the characters in Othello– this is of primary importance. M.H. Abrams in The Norton Anthology of English Literature attributes the dramatist’s universality to his characters as well as to the relevance of his themes:
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).
Abrams, M. H., ed. “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.
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.
n -- --. “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.
Kermode, Frank. “Othello, the Moor of Venice.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
Levin, Harry. General Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
Muir, Kenneth. Introduction. William Shakespeare: Othello. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html 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.