Othello as Tragic Hero
Othello, the Moor of Venice is a Shakespearean tragedy that focuses on the great war hero Othello and the lengths to which Iago goes to in order to strip Othello of his power. Iago’s thirst for power commences when he is passed up for promotion and Michael Cassio is instead award the position of lieutenant. Although it would appear to be more logical that Iago target Cassio, he instead targets his superior, Othello, not only because he hates him, but also because he knows that he can easily manipulate Othello and lead him to self-destruct. Othello is categorized as a tragedy among Shakespeare’s works and may further be classified as an Aristotelian tragedy as Othello appears to embody several characteristics that are attributed with being a tragic hero.
Greek philosopher Aristotle defines a tragic hero as “a [virtuous or noble] person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation” (Brown). Additionally, the tragic hero’s fall is “a result of free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate” (“Aristotle”). In some cases, a tragic hero’s fall is due to a tragic flaw, hamartia, whereas in other cases, divine interference is a factor in the tragic hero’s fall. “An Aristotelian tragedy has as its essential aim a significant illumination of the pitiable and fearful dimensions of human existence” (Golden 144). In the play, Othello’s hamartia includes his blinding trust and his inability to logically analyze a situation, rather relying on his emotions and passions to guide him. Furthermore, a tragic hero’s fall is not wholly deserved and the punishment often exceeds the crime that is committed. The tragic hero’s fall is not without a purpose and it serves to enlighten the tragic hero of his or her flaw. The last key element of a tragic hero’s fall and its purpose is to incite catharsis to ensure that the audience is not left depressed at the end of the play (“Aristotle”).
Othello, although a foreigner to Venice, has grown to become a highly respected citizen through his military exploits and triumphs. As such, he has earned the post of lieutenant within the army and is often relied upon for his military expertise, especially against the Turks and Ottomites. As defined by Aristotle, Othello’s downfall is not attributed through a personal vice or depravity, but rather due to his hamartia. In Othello’s case, his downfall can be attributed to hamartia and the interference of Iago, who although is not a divine force, is able to manipulate Othello in an attempt to satisfy his ego. John Arthos argues “the faults of honor are, of course, the faults of pride in part,” that is to say that Othello cannot look upon his comrades dishonorably because of his pride (p. 98).
Othello falls victim to Iago’s manipulations because he is unwilling to see or even consider that the men that he surrounds himself with could ever be untruthful. Iago notes, “The Moor is of a free and open nature,/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,/And will as tenderly be led by the nose/As asses are” (Shakespeare 1.3.756-59). It is this virtuous weakness that Iago exploits once his initial plan of having Brabantio confront Othello of bewitching his daughter, Desdemona, backfires. Seeing how committed Desdemona and Othello are to each other, Iago sees their love as a tool of manipulation.
Othello’s hamartia is his inability to distinguish between those that are honest and those that are dishonest, in this case, Desdemona and Iago, respectively. At the beginning of the play, Othello has no reason to distrust either of the two people closest to him. Othello considers Iago to be a close ally, especially since the two have constantly had to fight side by side in combat against the Turkish enemy. On the other hand, Desdemona has proven to Othello that she truly cares about him and loved him “for the dangers [he] had pass’d,/And [he] loved her that she did pity them” (1.3.512-12). However, Othello also proves to be possessive of his wife and does not appear to be content when she is out of his sight, constantly parading her as though she were a highly prized object and even puts her life and well-being at risk by taking her to the battlefield with him.
As Iago is able to manipulate Othello due to his extreme love for his wife, Othello’s possessiveness can also be considered to be a tragic flaw, albeit it is not an intellectual flaw, but rather an emotional one. Iago is able to persuade Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him and has been having an adulterous affair with Cassio, who Iago is also determined to destroy. Othello’s perception of Desdemona is obviously altered after Iago talks to him. For instance, Othello brushes off his wife’s attempts to help ameliorate his headache by telling her, “Your napkin is too little: Let it alone,” which causes her to drop her napkin out of shock only to have him turn around and demand that she show him the same napkin (3.3.1952; 3.3.1954). Additionally, he attempts to manipulate his wife, something that he had not done before, by telling her that the napkin is imbued with magic powers of faithfulness and that it is proof that she has not deceived him.
It can be argued that Othello’s abuse of his wife could have been circumvented if Othello had not been as focused on his civic duty and if he had not been as dependent on the “loyalty” of Iago, who, granted he had known longer and had been through more hardships with. Othello made a choice to trust Iago over his wife. Had Othello relied on himself — and realized that he was the only person that he could trust wholeheartedly — he could have approached the concerns he had regarding Desdemona’s alleged adultery in a different manner. Through open and honest communication, Desdemona would have and could have been afforded the opportunity to explain and defend herself and could have avoided her own death. Othello’s downfall is ultimately the result of a series of bad choices that he made willingly despite external influences. While Iago planted the seed of discord in Othello’s mind, he did not force his target’s hand.
As a result of these decisions, the relationship between Desdemona and Othello continues to deteriorate, in addition to the deterioration of communication, which ultimately leads to both of their demises. It is Desdemona’s reluctance to speak up against her husband that further attributes to his downfall. Despite Othello’s abusive comportment towards his wife, Desdemona does not stand up to him, attempt to correct him, or defend herself against his accusations. This can be seen during an instance in which Othello slaps his wife without provocation and she responds by only saying “I have not deserved this” and doing nothing more (4.1.2682). Othello does not give Desdemona an opportunity to defend herself, but rather relies on the one person that is intentionally trying to destroy him, Iago. Because Othello is more willing to side with Iago and believe whatever he says, Desdemona is left without any moral, emotional, or marital support and contributes to her own death, confessing with her final breath that it was “I myself” that should be blamed for her death (5.2.3453).
In Othello, as in other Shakespearean tragedies, Othello and his companions “bring about their own destruction, though aided and abetted by external circumstances — if a wife and friend can be called external” (Boas 17). In this case, external circumstances include Iago’s manipulation, which results in Desdemona’s death and that attainment of Iago’s goal. When Othello is apprehended after murdering his beloved wife, he admits his guilt, but also wants to set the record straight by asserting that he was “one that loved not wisely, but too well;/Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought/Perplex’d in the extreme” (5.2.3711-13). Like many Aristotelian tragic heroes, Othello recognizes his flaw far too late and only after the damage has been done.
Like other Greek tragedies, Othello provides the audience with an opportunity for catharsis. Despite the tragic ending in which the hero and his wife fall victim to hamartia and the ensuing consequences, justice prevails in the end as Iago is also stripped of everything that he held dear, including his life. Just like Desdemona died at the hands of her own husband, so does Emilia, Iago’s wife, after being fatally stabbed by her own husband (4.2). As a result of Emilia’s death, his attack on Cassio, and Roderigo’s murder, Iago is sentenced to death, thereby preventing him from ever attaining the position of power he long yearned. By not allowing Iago to get away with everything that he did, the audience is given a sense of relief in knowing that justice was served. Furthermore, Othello’s suicide allows the audience to see that he repented everything that he did and that he could not live with himself.
Othello is rife with oppositions that the titular character must deal with every day. While Othello attempts to overcome obstacles of racial discrimination, he remains a target due to his Moorish background. Additionally, despite his many heroic feats, it is unlikely that Othello will ever be considered to be equal to others that have achieved the same triumph feats. There are many things working against Othello throughout the play that it is difficult to see how he could ever pull ahead, especially with Iago poisoning his mind. As such, the tragic traits of the play infiltrate every aspect of it and are not limited to the characters, but also to society and social constructs.
“Aristotle.” Virginia Community College System. Web. 4 July 2012.
Arthos, John. “The Fall of Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1958), pp.
93-104. JSTOR. Web. 4 July 2012.
Boas, George. “The Evolution of the Tragic Hero.” The Carleton Drama Review, Vol. 1, No. 1,
Greek Tragedy (1955-1956), pp. 5-21. JSTOR. Web. 4 July 2012.
Brown, Larry A. “Aristotle on Greek Tragedy.” Lipscomb University. January 2005. Web. 4
Golden, Leon. “Othello, Hamlet, and Aristotelian Tragedy.” Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 35,
No. 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 142-156. JSTOR. Web. 4 July 2012.
Shakespeare, William. Othello, the Moor of Venice. Open Source Shakespeare. Web. 4 July
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