OTHELLO AS A TRAGIC HERO
Othello is a classic tragic hero that stands out as distinguished individual failing in the encounter with evil. Brought to us through Shakespeare’s genius, he compares in significance to other personalities including Oedipus, Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet and other tragic heroes. This paper will focus on the explication of Othello as a tragic hero and his correspondence to the canons for tragic protagonists.
Othello and Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy
To decide how well Othello fits into the mold of a tragic hero, one needs to accept in the first place a working definition of tragedy and tragic hero. The theorists exploring tragedy almost universally draw upon the classic account of this play variety in Aristotle’s Poetics. The prominent Greek philosopher defined a heroic tragedy in the following way: “A truly tragic plot is a disastrous reversal of fortune, coming, through his own fault, to a man of essentially noble quality, accompanied by the discovery that some other person or persons are not what they had seemed… [The] test of a great tragedy is its power to cleanse the beholders’ emotions through the pity and fear which it awakens in them” (Othello: the tragic hero).
This cleansing that is realized through pity and fear was termed catharsis and is an indispensable feature of any tragedy. Besides, a tragedy needs a character of noble quality, guilty of some kind of fault that brings about tragic events. A tragedy also has to present to the reader a plot possessing some logical unity and completion and the one that contains engaging action. Aristotle also specified that a tragedy has to include appropriate linguistic devices that serve to bring out its meaning (Time and the tragic hero).
Most critics stopped short of saying that Shakespeare was aware of Aristotelian theories and took them as a guide for writing (Time and the tragic hero; Djordjevic 2003). However, his tragedies reveal strict adherence to Aristotle’s theory, and Othello is no exception. Whether this correspondence was caused by a thorough study of Aristotle’s works or through an accidental coincidence of thoughts of two geniuses of the world’s culture remains a matter for guessing.
Thus, the play definitely possesses a noble character, Othello. The man’s nobility of action contrasts with his dark-colored appearance, unusual for Europe of that time. Othello proved himself to be a noble warrior deserving of the highest respect. He never acts dishonestly or cowardly throughout the play; in fact, nobility is one of the most important features of his character. Yet he fails through his own fault, and this fault is his credibility. An essentially good feature, it is taken to extremes in Othello, which causes his demise. He never stoops to questioning Desdemona. He is so absorbed in what Iago tells him that he never questions the words of the villain. At the time when the vicious Iago weaves his web of conspiracy, gullible Othello greets him with the words:
I know thou art full of love and honesty.
Therefore, Othello is not merely a victim of malicious circumstances as he might have been if he had, for example, lost a wife had been hit by a lightning or cruelly murdered by robbers. Instead, he incurred his misfortune himself, and his death at the end of the play serves to underscore this idea. At the end of the play he chastises himself with bitterness, confessing that his ruin was brought about by his own failure:
O cursed, cursed slave! Whip me, ye devils,
from the possession of the heavenly sight!
Blow me about the winds! roast me in sulphur!
.,.0 Desdemona, Desdemona Dead! O! O! O!”
Othello as a play also fits Aristotle’ description as it contains logical unity and coherence that is a necessary component of tragedy. The play starts from the moment of idyllic honeymooning between Othello and Desdemona and follows Iago’s treacherous plan from inception to its tragic success. Othello’s sufferings in youth and the story of his courtship stay behind the scene, but in Othello’s account they form a logical background for the action observed by the viewer.
Othello evokes in the readers both pity and fear. They are pressured to feel sorry for the man who so sadly loses his wife due to a conspiracy. The pity for Othello even exceeds the feeling for Desdemona who is merely a victim; she does not have to suffer the pangs of conscience for what she has done. At the same time pity is not the only feeling Othello evokes in the readers or viewers. He also raises fear as a man capable of such a savage revenge, killing a wife on the spot for the alleged adultery. It seems that even at the time of more stringent morality such as mediaeval Italy not every husband would go that far as to kill the adulteress. This is even less likely in Elizabethan England, and so had to seem even wilder to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Othello’s reaction demonstrates that he was a man of extremely hot temper and strong emotions, capable of venting his sentiments in a very violent way.
Othello: A Stock Comic Character?
Although the standard view is to see Othello as a purely tragic character, other, mopre unusual interpretations are possible. Igor Djordjevic in his article “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet): From Shakespearean Tragedy to Postmodern Satyr Play” points out an interesting aspect of Othello’s character. In his view, Othello could have been a comic fellow instead, and he is inverted into a tragic hero by the playwright. Othello is a character typical of comedies; a husband whose wife is much younger and more beautiful, and thus raises fears of being deceived.
However, Othello does not fit into the regular model of a husband whose worries are to be derided. At the outset of the play he appears as “a lover who must obtain the legitimization of his courtship of Desdemona, and he must overcome the multiple obstacles of the senex, racial prejudice, and religious charges of witchcraft” (Djordjevic 2003). It is his painful pursuit of Desdemona whom he had to steal to be able to marry her that wins him the hearts of the reader. Shakespeare depicts the trials of Othello, a victim to racial bias, in such a way that the reader begins to sympathise with the late love of this great man, the swan song of his life that is already to some degree tragic. Seeing him lose what he worked so hard to attain endears him to the reader even more.
Othello evokes pity in the reader partly due to the fact that he experienced so many hardships in life that the skilful narrative of these hardships eventually won him Desdemona’s heart:
“She loved me for the dangers I had passed.
And I loved her that she did pity them
The playwright tries here to instill in the reader sympathy with the old soldier who fought desperately for his love going through many hardships. The listener responds by saying “I think this tale would win my daughter too” and this approval “symbolically … [confers]… upon him the approval and affection of the fictional worlds power structures” (Djordjevic 2003).
Is Othello Real?
Now we will turn in our discussion to a possible objection to the fact that Othello is a tragic hero. Some criticism of his belonging to this category comes from the “speculation concerning the realism and probability conveyed by Othello which suggests that because of the seeming unlikelihood of the events in the play, it is not characteristic of a tragedy” (Sharina). Indeed, the plot develops in a rather speedy manner and the playwright does not elaborate on Othello’s or other characters.
Even so, the action seems unrealistic only at first glance. First, it is a mode of the artist to show the public the unusual and the unexpected basing these things on the knowledge of everyday things that are familiar to everybody. Shakespeare here makes his audience see jealousy in a new light, and it is no wonder that the name of Othello has come to be a generic name for a jealous husband. It is positive that reading through the story had a deterrent effect on the behaviour of many violent husbands who could have stopped short of beating their wives to death in a family quarrel provoked by suspicions of infidelity.
And is such a scenario an unlikely one? Women die in family ‘battles’ even in most developed nations of the world today, and the examination of domestic violence statistics may show that wife murder is unfortunately still a prevalent phenomenon even after centuries of struggle for gender equality and reduction of crime rate. If we consider that things that are unusual in our own environment may unfortunately be prevalent in the lives of other social groups, we will see that events in Othello are not that unusual.
The fact that Othello is easily persuaded to murder his wife by Iago should not be regarded as totally unrealistic either. This is what Aristotle would describe as hamartia – the character’s tragic flaw. For Othello, it is his naivete and credulousness. His devotion comes to be exploited by one of the most ingenious villains in the history of literature. Iago’s motives appear clear. Indeed, so many evil actions are committed every day due to jealousness that Iago’s behaviour should not be surprising. In this character, viciousness is combined with deep psychological insight and potential for intrigue that are worthy of a better application. To count as Othello’s close friend and ally, Iago had to be an outstanding player skillfully performing the part of the devoted ensign. He manipulates Othello to bring about his ruin in a way in which Othello would never be able to manipulate him.
The events in the play may lead the reader to question why Othello is so ready to trust Iago and unwilling to trust his beloved wife Desdemona, a fact that generates the protagonist’s tragic flaw. There several possible explanations for this apparently surprising behavior. First, Othello has come to rely on Iago in numerous mutual adventures where both risked their lives. The time itself spent together justifies the trust Othello puts in Iago. Perhaps to that point he had never come across the betrayal of a close male friend, except for Cassio, but there the conflict, in Iago’s suggestion, was caused by the woman.
Second, Othello’s relationship with Desdemona arrived at the time when he probably had lost hope for a happy family life. She appeared as a star on the horizon to illuminate his life, and all the time he probably doubted that he could be a proper match for the beautiful girl she was. The idea that she is betraying him with someone else, someone younger, more handsome and closer to her in terms of background, social rank and status, falls on ready ears. This is something Othello had feared to hear for a long time, in spite of the seemingly idyllic love between him and his wife.
Thus, Othello’s actions seem closer and more understandable to us than seems at first glance. And it is action, not characterization that makes a tragedy, according to Aristotle (Sharina). That is why he is a real tragic character.
Comparison to Other Tragic Heroes
Othello is similar to and different from other characters in other plays by Shakespeare. Of all the characters, he probably falls most of all due to his own tragic fault, and Aristotle’s hamartia is most evident in this case. Other characters such as King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo, have to fight evil in a more open form. Hamlet, for instance, has to deal with the betrayal of his father-in-law and mother. True, he has to obtain proof of their betrayal, which is the reason he suspends the revenge desired by his father. But there is hardly a reason to blame Hamlet from the point of view of modem liberal criminal justice that places emphasis on preserving the rights of the suspected. Hamlet acts on the evidence he has, and his indecisiveness is the direct consequence of his responsible attitude towards revenge.
King Lear, in his turn, falls victim to his paternal feelings. His misfortune was brought about by his extreme trust in his daughters, but few readers would expect a father to act in distrust of one’s children. Mothers and fathers forsaking all they have for their children are praised and respected in our society that highly appreciates such behavior. The fact that daughters turned out to lack gratitude is an example of undisguised evil that can, as many people think, happen to the best of parents. These two characters are definitely not villains; rather, they fall prey to evil people eager to take advantage of some traits of their characters that under other circumstances are most worthy. Strictly speaking, their actions cannot even be named mistakes from the moral, not strategic, point of view.
Macbeth, on the other hand, is a straightforward villain, and his ruin is the result of his own treacherous acts. He yields to ambition, killing Duncan, to become King of Scotland. A virtuous reader has little ground to associate oneself with this character and simply observes a tale of how a villain is brought to ruin through his deeds. Othello, on the other hand, is essentially a moral person who fails through making a terrible mistake.
Thus, Othello is a bona fide tragic hero, even if he is not a man of unusual stature or appearance. He possesses all the vital traits of the tragic character, noble qualities, pure character, and a tragic fault, his naivete that makes him vulnerable to the intrigues of his antagonist, Iago. A staple comic character, a deceived husband, he is turned into a really tragic personage by the sympathy with which Shakespeare describes his misfortune. His tribulations, although somewhat unrealistic at first glance, are in line with the everyday happenings even in contemporary world. Othello stands out from other tragic heroes, because he falls through his own flaw and yet his flaw is so minor that is incomparable with the misfortunes he suffers.