Othello as Tragic Hero
While Othello is not Greek and Shakespeare is not a Greek playwright, Othello embodies many characteristics of a tragic hero as outlined by Aristotle.
What is a tragic hero?
Person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor someone who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation.
Othello is manipulated by Iago to murder Desdemona
Iago uses Othello’s trusting nature against him
Hero falls because of tragic flaw/hamartia
Tragic choices are made through free will
No one forces Othello to act as he did, Iago simply pushes him iii. Tragic flaws include jealousy, stubbornness, and misplaced trust
Othello surrounds himself by people who want to destroy him — Iago.
Iago sees Othello’s trusting nature as a weapon
Iago attacks Othello because he was passed up for promotion iii. Iago attacks Othello because he hates him
b. Othello does not know who to trust/refuses to consider Iago might be lying
i. Trusts Iago over Desdemona while he should trust Desdemona over Iago
a. Othello treats Desdemona as an object/possession
b. Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio
IV. Free will
a. Othello makes no effort to uncover truth
b. More focused on civil duty
c. Would rather trust Iago than his own instinct
d. Lack of communication contributes to Othello’s fall; does not approach Desdemona to determine truth behind Iago’s accusations
i. Desdemona never given opportunity to defend herself
e. No supernatural intervention
a. Play allows audience to experience catharsis
i. Othello admits his wrongdoings, commits suicide
ii. Iago is apprehended, executed iii. Roderigo & Emiliana are murdered by Iago
iv. Desdemona’s murderers are brought to justice through their respective deaths
a. Othello cannot recognize danger of trusting Iago
b. Othello can only blame himself in the end
c. Iago proved to Othello that he was qualified for the position of lieutenant through his scheming and manipulations — essentially waged war on Othello through psychology
William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice follows Othello’s fall from a position of honor and respect at the hands of Iago, his trusted ancient, who seeks to exact unwarranted revenge on his leader for a promotion that he believes he was entitled to. Although it would appear to be more logical to attack the system that allowed Iago to passed up for promotion, Iago attacks Othello because he hates him and is jealous of his position and the opportunities that have been afforded to him despite his race and background. While Othello is not Greek and Shakespeare is not a Greek playwright, Othello embodies many characteristics of a tragic hero as outlined by Aristotle.
Aristotle defined a tragic hero as a 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, 2005). In Othello’s case, Othello is manipulated by Iago into acting out against his wife, Desdemona, not because she has done anything wrong, but rather because Iago knows, “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, 1603, 1.3.756-59). Furthermore, this tragic hero’s fall results from “free choice, not of accident or villainy or some overriding, malignant fate” (Aristotle, n.d.). A tragic hero’s fall is often facilitated through a tragic flaw, which Aristotle called hamartia, or is facilitated through divine intervention. In Othello, the Moor of Venice, Othello’s actions are not forced by any external or other supernatural force, but rather his decisions are made freely, although not wisely. In Othello’s case, Iago is able to manipulate him by exploiting Othello’s tragic flaws: jealousy, stubbornness, and misplaced trust. John Arthos (1958) argues, “the faults of honor are, of course, the faults of pride in part” (p. 98). That being said, it can be argued that Othello’s pride prevents him from communicating with those around him, specifically Desdemona, and thus interferes with him uncovering the truth behind Iago’s baseless accusations.
Othello is easily victimized by Iago because he is unable to see or consider that the trusted men he surrounds himself with could ever be deceitful. As stated before, Iago is able to manipulate Othello because of his trusting nature. Iago perceives this as a weakness, and after his initial plan of having Othello persecuted by Brabantio for allegedly bewitching and marrying Desdemona backfires, he commences on a psychological barrage on Othello. Iago thus proceeds to attack Othello from every angle possible — through his wife and through his friend, Michael Cassio who also happens to have been promoted to a high-ranking position that Iago believes should have been award to him because while Cassio has the education to justify the promotion, Iago contends that his experience outweighs Casio’s knowledge.
One of Othello’s fatal flaws is his inability to differentiate between the people he can trust and those he cannot trust. At the beginning of the play, Othello has no reason not to trust Iago and perceives him to be a trusting and loyal ensign. Othello and Iago have fought side-by-side on various occasions. Throughout the entire play, Othello’s trust in Iago is unwavering because of this history, which facilitates Iago’s manipulations. On the other hand, while Desdemona has not been able to demonstrate to Othello that she can be trusted to the same capacity as Iago, Desdemona should be trusted by Othello because she is his wife and has his best interests at heart. Furthermore, Desdemona has worked to gain Othello’s trust and she loves him “for the dangers [he] had pass’d,/And [he] loved her that she did pity them” (Shakespeare, 1603, 1.3.512-12). Othello’s love for Desdemona borders on obsessive and possessive; Othello is not happy when Desdemona is away from him and seemingly parades her as though she were a prized object, sometimes putting her life and well-being at risk by taking her with him onto the battlefield.
Othello’s secondary flaw is his possessive attitude towards Desdemona. While this is not an intellectual flaw per se, it is an emotional flaw. Iago is able to successfully convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him and has been engaged in an adulterous affair with Michael Cassio, whom Iago also hates as well as Cassio was promoted to the position of lieutenant despite not having any combat experience. Once Iago plants the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind regarding Desdemona, Othello’s attitude towards his wife is irrevocably altered. For example, when Desdemona attempts to comfort and help ease her husband’s headache he states, “Your napkin is too little: Let it alone,” which not only catches Desdemona, but also causes her to drop the napkin, which Othello later claims is enchanted and a symbol of her fidelity or infidelity (Shakespeare, 1603, 3.3.1952; 3.3.1954).
Othello’s manipulations and the choices that he makes are not influenced by a supernatural force as often was seen in Greek tragedies, but rather are a consequence of free will. Had Othello been more focused on trying to figure out the truth rather than been focused on his civic duty and placing his trust on people that were “loyal” to him, he would not have been put into such a predicament. Othello chose to trust Iago over his wife rather than examining the allegations made by Iago. The only person that Othello can blame in this situation is himself, just as he is the only person he can trust without a doubt. Had Othello had a more open line of communication with his wife, it is almost certain Desdemona would have had the chance to defend herself against her accuser and in the process, prevented her death at the hands of her jealous husband. Ultimately, Othello’s downfall is attributed to a series of the ill-advised choices he makes; despite the malicious manipulations of Iago, Iago did not force Othello’s hand nor did he implicitly direct Othello’s actions.
As a result of the misguided decisions Othello makes, the marital relationship between him and Desdemona disintegrates and finally ends in the demise of both. Like Iago, Desdemona’s reluctance to speak up and clear up the misinformation that has been fed to Othello also contributes to Othello’s tragic fall. It can be argued that Desdemona has been forced to be submissive through Othello’s behavior towards her. Othello appears to be quick to anger; this is evident when Othello slaps Desdemona without sans provocation. Othello is borderline abusive towards Desdemona and does not allow her to defend herself, correct him, or stand up against his domineering ways; Desdemona’s only reaction is to state, “I have not deserved this,” yet does not proceed to attempt to defend herself any further (Shakespeare, 1603, 4.1.2682). While entering into the bonds of marriage should signify that Othello is entrusting Desdemona with everything that he is and that she is doing the same, Othello does not give Desdemona to build trust with him and he would rather listen to Iago than his own wife. Because of Othello’s insistence on siding with Iago and by giving in to his accusations, Desdemona is left without marital or moral support from her husband and ultimately contributes to her own death, finally admitting that she was the only person that was to blame for her untimely death (Shakespeare, 1603, 5.3.3453).
Unlike classical Greek tragedies in which supernatural forces have a hand in the destiny of the tragic hero, Othello and those around him “bring about their own destruction, though aided and abetted by external circumstances — if a wife and friend can be called external” (Boas, 1955, p. 17). The external circumstances in Othello, the Moor of Venice include Iago’s maniacal manipulations, which cause Othello to distrust and eventually murder Desdemona. Othello recognizes his mistakes far too late, yet asserts that he “one that loved not wisely, but too well;/Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought/Perplex’d in the extreme” (Shakespeare, 1603, 5.2.3711-13). In keeping with Aristotelian tragedy constructs, Othello, like other tragic heroes, recognizes too late his mistakes and has to accept the consequences of his actions. This acceptance further contributes to Othello’s characterization as a hero; unlike Iago who only makes things worse when before he is apprehended by publically murdering his wife, Othello willingly gives himself up to the proper authorities.
Moreover, Othello, the Moor of Venice gives the audience an opportunity to experience a sense of catharsis. Regardless of the tragic ending in which the hero, Othello, and innocent bystander, Desdemona, are killed because of Othello’s hamartia, justice prevails because despite Iago’s many attempts to claim the position of lieutenant as his own, he fails miserably to do so; Iago not only fails to claim the position, but he also loses everything in the process — his wife, his liberty, and his life. Iago is not only responsible for Emiliana’s death, but he also attacked Cassio, murdered Roderigo, attempted to trick Brabantio into killing or banishing Othello, and contributed to Desdemona’s death. Additionally, Emiliana loses her life not only because of her husband’s meddling, but also because she contributed to Iago’s nefarious plan. The audience is given a sense of justice through Iago’s apprehension, prosecution, and execution. Moreover, Othello’s suicide allows the audience to see that he was sorry for everything that he did and that the guilt would not allow him to go on living.
In spite of the constant conflict that Othello faced throughout his career, he was too blind and arrogant to consider that his enemies were not only located on the field of battle, but that they also resided among his own men. It is Othello’s inability to recognize the danger lurking in his own environment that led him down such a tragic path. Moreover, Othello has no one to blame but himself because despite Iago’s manipulations and insinuations, he never forced Othello’s hand and ultimately, Othello should have realized that he was victim of a strategic attack, much like those he battled against were victims of a carefully planned attack.
Aristotle. (n.d.).Virginia Community College System. Accessed 7 October 2012, from http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/tragedy/aristotle.htm.
Arthos, John. (1958). The Fall of Othello. Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 9, No. 2. pp.
Boas, George. (1955). The evolution of the tragic hero. The Carleton Drama Review, Vol. 1, No.
1, Greek Tragedy, pp. 5-21.
Brown, Larry A. (2005, January). Aristotle on Greek Tragedy. Lipscomb University. Accessed 7
October 2012, from http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/aristotle_tragedy.html.
Shakespeare, William. (1603). Othello, the Moor of Venice. Open Source Shakespeare. Accessed 7 October 2012, from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/playmenu.php?WorkID=othello
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