Othello: A Guide to the Play

By Joan Lord Hall | Go to book overview

6
CRITICAL APPROACHES

NEOCIASSICAL AND ROMANTIC

Thomas Rymer's lambasting of Othello in A Short View of Tragedy ( 1693) was the first piece of sustained literary criticism of the play. The neoclassical standards by which Rymer judged tragic drama called for logic and moral justice in the resolution of the action, decorum in character presentation, and truth to nature; not surprisingly, the critic found the play defective in all these areas. To him it seemed absurd that so much should hinge on a "trifle" like a handkerchief -- "Had it been Desdemona's Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat" 1 -- and he notes, among other improbabilities, the lack of time during which Desdemona could have pursued an affair with Cassio. The cruel murder of Desdemona flouts all moral "Justice and Reason," raising the question "If this be our end, what boots it to be Vertuous?" 2 So much implausibility, he concludes, vitiates the play's claim to tragic greatness, so that while Othello contains some wit and humor, "the tragical part . . . is none other, than a Bloody Farce, without salt or savour." 3

Rymer is most scathing about the dramatic characters, whom he considers "not less unnatural and improper, than the Fable was improbable and absurd." 4 Desdemona is a "Fool" whose language often violates upper-class norms ("no Woman bred out of a Pig-stye, could talk so meanly") 5 and Othello's character, incompatible with that of a general, fails to convince on two other counts; in the first place, it is unlikely that a "villainous Black-amoor" 6 would be respected by the Venetians (in fact this was historically viable), and then Shakespeare lapses into further inconsistency by giving this "Barbarian" and "Savage" the "soft language" of the "Put out the light" speech. 7 Rymer is most outraged by the "intolerable" presentation of Iago. The ensign is totally unconvincing because he breaks the convention by which soldiers are "open-hearted, frank, plain-dealing"; never "in Tragedy, nor in Comedy, nor in Nature was a Souldier with his Character." 8

The commentary of this late- seventeenth-century critic, at times maddeningly literal-minded, has nevertheless proved a useful sounding board for later critics.

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Othello: A Guide to the Play
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Notes x
  • Journal Abbreviations xi
  • 1 - Textual History 1
  • Notes 8
  • 2 - Contexts and Sources 11
  • Notes 22
  • 3 - Dramatic Structure 29
  • Notes 57
  • 4 - The Major Characters 63
  • Notes 94
  • 5 - Themes 103
  • Notes 116
  • 6 - Critical Approaches 121
  • Notes 142
  • 7 - The Play in Performance 151
  • Notes 200
  • Bibliographical Essay 209
  • Index 217
  • About the Author *
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