Not Great Literature?

Ok, here’s an interesting question. I’ve mentioned that I hang out on Yahoo! Answers recently, answering many homework-like questions as they interest me. I ignore the blatant copy-and-paste ones and go after the more interesting ones like “Who is the more sympathetic character, Hermia or Helena?” or “Why does the messenger initially lie to Macduff about what’s happened to his family?”

So a question came up about Iago being the villain in Othello. That’s all fine and good, but check out the ranting answer somebody posted, which I thought would make for good discussion. I’m not plagiarizing here, I’m providing a link to the original – we just can’t have a discussion about his answer on that forum. Maybe he’ll see us and come visit 🙂

Shakespeare wrote some plays that rise to the level of great literature, such as “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” But “Othello” is not one of his “great literature” plays. It is melodrama, pure and simple.

That opening soliloquy of Iago makes that clear. It is also shown by how easily the supposed great general, Othello, is duped by Iago.

Why then do so many teachers and professors try to teach “Othello” as great literature? They are just following in what their teachers and professors did. They aren’t thinking for themselves. Like Othello, they have been duped.

There’s more to his answer, but I’ve snipped the Shakespeare-relevant bit. Thoughts?

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5 thoughts on “Not Great Literature?

  1. As a play, Othello suffers from the same context problem as Julius Caesar.

    Just as we never see the friendship between Caesar and Brutus on stage, Iago and Othello were friends and Iago was a trusted ally–until he feels Othello betrayed him. That's when Iago uses his position of trust to destroy Othello.

    It's not that Othello is a dolt who doesn't realize when he's being duped, it's that he has blinders on. It makes sense that Othello is going to be more apt to believe someone who has stood by him in battle and never (?) lied to him, someone who has shown loyalty, than a complete outsider. We never really see that side of the relationship in the play. We only hear about it–and how much Iago resents Othello and Cassio for passing him up for promotion.

    It is shocking to see how easy it is for Iago to zero in on Othello's main weakness, but that's what makes it a tragedy. The noble, "heroic" characters are destroyed by their own code of honor, trust, and loyalty. Othello the untouchable general is undone by his jealousy. Desdemona is undone by her faithfulness.

    If anything, the play might be a commentary on the weaknesses of virtue as much as it is a cautionary tale about the power of jealousy. Jealousy drives Iago's revenge as much as it poison's Othello's thinking.

  2. I'm not convinced. But then, I take issue with the "twist ending" way of debate – that is, "what if x isn't really as good as everyone is told it is?" Without evidence, it's an interesting idea that doesn't hold up.

    Also, even if you were to assume that Othello is melodrama (to which I would say that it is too complex and human to fit the definition), there's nothing that says a well-written melodrama can't be great literature. Because the term tends to be synonymous with soap operas and Lifetime "movies of the week" there's an inherent quality assessment that certainly isn't true in the case of Othello.

  3. I agree. There's nothing "pure and simple" about GREAT or GOOD 'melodrama'. Reminds me of what modern sentiment has done to the word "rhetoric"; as if it's always something 'bad'. I think it might in fact be the dismissal of the importance of dramatic rhetoric as an important ingredient of the literary that allows the responder to diminish Othello as worthwhile literature in the first place. –Never mind the also 'slight' dismissal of the poetry as a factor in any such judgment. Once again, the importance of a dictionary seems to be be undervalued in the 'modern' assessment of 'things' in general.

  4. To me, that just sounds like the rhetoric of someone pumped up on the idea of being edgy and pushing buttons. The last paragraph, particularly, just smacks of, "Ooh, I'm being clever."

    'Othello' is far from my favorite play, but there's some great stuff there. The character of Iago alone is a masterpiece — an insidious villain who makes the audience want to love him, want to stand behind him, even as you know he's doing awful things and making you complicit in them. He tailors his manipulations so perfectly, and there's a lot to learn in examining the different language Shakespeare has him use when he's talking to Roderigo, to Emilia, to Othello, and to the audience.

    And then, yes, it sort of a melodrama — though that term is anachronistic — but in that, it's worth looking at for how different it is from Shakespeare's other works. In this play, more than any other, he takes a large world, full of senators, generals, soldiers, sailors, ships, and wars — and he narrows it down, striking off anything extraneous, dwindling the world of the play down to the action in a single bedroom. It's claustrophobic, and it's part of why I don't much care for the play — but it is masterfully done.

    Of course, I take some issue with the entire idea of Shakespeare as "great literature", because of course it was not originally intended as "literature", but as "drama" — but that is a fight for a whole other day. 😉 It may, however, explain why that poster has difficulty imagining 'Othello' as great — if you've only read the play flat on the page, if you haven't been in a theatre with an Iago twisting you around his little finger, I can see how you might miss some of the greatness.

  5. Although Iago is the villain, I think you could also easily make a case for him being the protagonist. He's the main mover of the action. He's the character that the audience gets the most direct communication with. The way I read that play, Iago (though certainly villainous in the traditional sense) is absolutely the protagonist (by my definition of protagonist… which in this case is almost more similar to the notion of an anti-hero).

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