Othello – the Unending Popularity
What factors within William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello can explain the undying popularity of the drama? Are such factors peculiar to the Bard? Let us take up these issues in this essay.
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).
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)
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