The Reputation of Othello
Where in the rankings does this Shakespearean tragedy stand? This essay will explore the answer to this question by considering professional literary commentary.
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)
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 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, realistic consideration is very important to Othello’s enduring popularity.
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? Robert B. Heilman says in “The Role We Give Shakespeare” that the playwright “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” (24-25).
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. Heilman relates the high ranking of Shakespeare to the “innumerableness of the parts,” with the result that ”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).
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...