How Does Othello Rate?
Is this the best, the second-best, the worst of William Shakespeare’s tragedies? Where does it place in the lineup? Let’s consider where it deserves to be and why in this essay.
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”:
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.