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Universal and Persistent Emotions

Shakespeare’s Othello has remained a living drama for nearly 400 years because it treats emotions that are universal and persistent in human nature. Every word carries its own weight, and all parts contribute to the irresistible culmination of plot and theme. 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 and demonstrations of love, tenderness, jealousy, and hate in terms that are humanly plausible.

Othello has been called a domestic tragedy; the protagonist is neither a king nor a noble hero of high birth; he is an army general whose official duties seem to cease as the domestic story begins. Hamlet kills a king, Lear and Macbeth drag their kingdoms into civil war. By contrast, Othello’s fall portends nothing extraordinary for Venice. Cassio will take Othello’s place as general, and life will go on pretty much undisturbed.

Yet this story is one of Shakespeare’s “great” tragedies. It is a tale of pitiless intensity in which the characters play out their roles within a narrow scope, moving swiftly and inexorably toward destruction. And this tragedy has Iago at its heart. Iago is the serpent pouring poison in Othello’s ear and turning his happiness into tragedy.

Why Iago should want to destroy Othello at all is one of the most debated questions of the play. Some people are satisfied by his claim to be acting out of jealousy over Cassio’s promotion. To others Iago seems to be rationalizing an inexplicable all-encompassing rage—perhaps latent homosexuality, perhaps nationalistic hatred—or perhaps Iago is the devil. The emotions in question are not ambition for a throne, not revenge for a crime, but insane jealousy and vicious malice.

The plot movement of the play is straightforward and uncluttered. From the marriage of Othello and Desdemona until their deaths, there is a straight line of action, which takes place in three days and fifteen scenes. When the play is studied, one realizes that is impossible for all the events to take place in so short a time; the action is condensed and compressed into this three day space, this dramatic time, to give the play unity and coherence.

Two early editions of Othello are in existence. The play appears in 1622 in quarto form (published individually), and it is included in the First Folio of 1623. Both are good texts without much visible corruption or error.

The source for Shakespeare’s Othello probably includes an account current in Elizabethan times of a Moor who married a virtuous Venetian lady and was led astray by a jealous ensign. This story by Giraldi Cinthio appeared in a collection of lurid tales circulating during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Stage tradition has it that in this play, more than in any other, audiences have been compelled to call out in response to the action–to warn Othello about Iago or to boo Iago when he comes on the stage. What this tells us is that the tragedy of Othello seems somehow more avoidable than does that of Hamlet or Lear, and thus somehow sadder and more painful when it ends as it does.

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