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Among Shakespeare’s tragedies Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth, the decision about which is best written ultimately needs to be decided according to the virtues of the plot, characterization, and the language. The three plays have very strong points. While Macbeth is extraordinary in Shakespeare’s use of language, its plot is also intricate and interesting. Othello stands out in the area of characterization, while Hamlet stands out in its language. However, when all areas of assessment are considered, Macbeth does appear to dominate as the best written of the three plays.
Othello does possess a very strong and deeply intricate character in the villain Iago. Shakespeare displays his highly refined skill in the manner in which he infuses Iago with evil. Iago is the definitive two-faced traitor, as he feigns the most iron-clad friendship with his lord Othello, while harboring the most potent resentment against him. Shakespeare creates a masterpiece in this character because he achieves an effect in which Iago almost becomes evil incarnate. The poignant hatred represented in all his speeches and actions highlights the play as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.
However, the play does have a weakness that is fatal to its position. Its plot, though given strong impetus by the avenging cruelty and hatred of Iago, gains its momentum from what seems to be an impotent plan. Othello implicates his wife Desdemona of adultery merely because her handkerchief is “found” in Cassio’s room—evidence that amounts almost to nothing. The weakness of this link from Iago’s hatred to his ruin of Othello is too great for the play to be considered the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The tragedy of Hamlet excels in the language that Shakespeare uses to express the inner thoughts and confusions of the characters. Hamlet’s speeches represent a masterpiece of insight into the human soul as it processes pain and loss. The famous “to be or not to be” speech is so highly regarded because it probes the mind of a man who is so deeply affected by his father’s murder and mother’s betrayal that he mentally wrestles with death: “To die to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub.
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause” (III. i. 73-77). The metaphorical mingling of sleep and death is a figurative achievement, and the expression of indecision as Hamlet lingers at the horizon of death gives the play a literary and lyrical edge. Still, this play has plot problems as well. It seems to drag on with Hamlet’s constant indecision and his antic disposition. His relationship with Ophelia is nebulous, yet its complications are not well expressed, but muddled and almost incoherent.
The end in which Ophelia and all the family die leaving Fortinbras to assume the throne is unsatisfying at the very least. These problems cause Hamlet also to be prevented in the final analysis from being considered Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Macbeth, like Hamlet, boasts very well written and poetic lines. The expression of the guilt that Macbeth feels after committing his murderous act is expressed in all its detail and rondure. In addition, it also possesses depth and expression of character that is unexcelled in any of Shakespeare’s other works.
Lady Macbeth rivals Iago in her capacity for evil—yet hers stems from nothing as petty as revenge. She seeks to exalt her husband’s position in an almost self-sacrificial effort to promote him. She shows clarity and decisiveness in a way that Hamlet does not, as she carries out her intention with no alloy of fear or hesitancy. In addition to the beauty of the language and the depth of characterization, Macbeth’s plot (though in some ways fantastical) carries itself naturally toward the end that it is given.
Nothing appears contrived. The hubris that Macbeth assumes at the behest of the witches and Lady Macbeth propels him gradually and naturally toward his murder of King Duncan and eventually toward his death at the hand of Macduff. The combination of excellences in the three areas of plot, characterization, and language tips the scale in favour of Macbeth as the greatest tragedy written by William Shakespeare.