Is Othello a Tragic Hero? Essay

To what extent can Othello be considered a ‘tragic hero’? The extent of which Othello is a tragic hero has been open to much debate; the basis on which he is judged falls to Aristotle’s established view of the crucial elements that distinguish whether a person is truly tragic. According to Aristotle, a tragic protagonist is a nobleman or person from high status, who contributes to his own demise and illustrates a flaw or weakness in judgment. The tragic protagonist must make a fall from a high state of being to a low state or death.

The tragic hero’s downfall, said Aristotle, was brought upon by some error of judgement. Aristotle’s theory is not the final word on tragedy, however it can support in pinpointing the pivotal traits in Othello’s character and when they occur, with great accuracy. This tragic ‘flaw’ has sometimes been incorrectly interpreted in moral terms, and some critics have looked for some moral weakness in the tragic hero. For Othello, this has led to the commonplace assertion that his fall is because he was too naive and trusting in his subordinate, Iago.

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Although, metaphorically speaking he does fall from a great height, it would be wrong to suggest that because Othello satisfies one of the Aristotelian criteria, it makes him a tragic hero. It is only when the six basic ideas are considered, can a hero be justly regarded as ‘tragic’. Nobility can be defined as a person who possesses excellent qualities of mind and character and who is not mean or petty. If you were to judge Othello’s character on the basis of this definition then it would be unfair to suggest that his nobility can support his claim to be a tragic hero.

To some, Othello lacks nobility and portrays a number of actions to justify this. His prestigious role as a General-to an extent-proves his nobility to the audience. For Othello to live in a predominantly white Venetian society, requires a certain amount of bravery which in a sense partially fulfils the criteria required to be considered as noble. However, in contrast, the final scene shows Othello to be one of Shakespeare’s most ignoble, odious protagonists. The quote exposes Othello as being unworthy of his noble title and reputation of being trustworthy and moral, both domestically and in profession as a soldier.

Striking a woman-even in the modern society- is attached with weakness and cowardice; so for Othello to publically humiliate and harm Desdemona, drastically lessens his argument of being a tragic hero and makes him somewhat ignoble. Desdemona’s innocent references to Cassio goad Othello until he snaps and strikes her. When she says she is “glad” that Othello has been ordered to Venice and that Cassio will be in charge of Cyprus, he can’t take anymore. The physical striking of Desdemona was not staged until the late 19th century by the actor Tommaso Salvini.

The striking of Desdemona would have evoked strong feelings from a Jacobean audience. Unlike Othello, Lodovico is a true gentleman and his quote “This would not be believed in Venice! ” emphasises the monstrosity of Othello’s action. This particular scene disproves Bradley’s theory that Othello is “the most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes”. Both Macbeth and Othello are prominent Jacobean tragedies that William Shakespeare created with notable tragic protagonists. The play Macbeth is an excellent work that closely follows Aristotle’s norms.

Macbeth is a brave warrior in King Duncan’s Army who compromises his honour and neglects his moral responsibilities in the attainment of power and position which inevitably results in his tragic end. Macbeth’s demise commences when he murders King Duncan purely to satisfy his own ego and fantasy of becoming king. He commits the murder because of his fatal flaw; excessive ambition. By contrast, Othello’s downfall is caused by his jealousy; this makes him less of a tragic hero in comparison to Macbeth, who falls from a high stature with noble reasoning.

Opposing my personal view, A. R Bradley perceives Othello’s jealousy as being ‘credible’ because of the newness of his marriage and the insecurities troubling Othello. This is a justified point however it only contributes as evidence to prove the case that Othello is not a tragic hero, he is merely weak. Throughout the duration of the play, Othello’s relationships with key characters are unveiled. It is then that we become aware of Othello’s relationship with Iago. From the offset, we learn that Iago is envious of Othello and sets out to destroy the life he has made for himself.

At the start of the play, Iago makes very clear to Roderigo the apparent cause for his hatred of the general. His lack of promotion to lieutenant leads him to declare: “… be judge yourself, Whether I in any just term am affin’d To love the Moor. ” Because of this, it could be argued that Othello is too trusting of Iago and should have been more vigilant; however, although the protagonist may hold a propensity towards jealousy, the ensign is immensely plausible and cunning and therefore there was no justifiable reason to distrust ‘noble Iago ‘.

Iago is also a primary source of situational and dramatic irony. His soliloquies serve as a vector to inform the audience of his intentions however his victims are unaware of his on-going manipulation. We later learn Iago’s vexed feelings towards the relationship of Othello and Desdemona. He is able to magnify and vilify the differences between Desdemona and Othello, much to the extent that Othello himself has the mind-set that his marriage is a travesty. Iago is able to plant the seed of disgust in Brabantio by making the marriage seem ‘unnatural’ and beast like: “… n old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1. 1. 87-88)” The quote displays the subtle manipulation and contortion by Iago that ultimately makes him one of Shakespeare’s utmost, greatest literary antagonists. Hazlitt claims that “Iago is an aesthete of evil” and lacks the motive to justify his actions. As a character, Iago is comparable to a Machiavellian Jacobean villain. His selfish obsession with dissembling and manipulating other persons, with the intent of destroying their character is definitive of a true Machiavel.

Similar to a Machiavel, Iago doesn’t behave selflessly and virtuously, instead he is motivated by evil, pride and selfishness. Othello’s mental deterioration progressively worsens to the point that his speech and personality no longer represents of the highly regarded military man and a lover-husband that we meet at the beginning of the play. Then Othello has great confidence in his skill with language, so much so that he can claim that he is “rude” in speech, with the knowledge that no-one surrounding him will believe this.

He then entices and marvels the audience with a forty-line speech that effortlessly weaves words such as “hair-breadth” and “Anthropophagi” into blank verse lines. However, in the moments when Iago’s manipulation is particularly extreme, Othello’s language deteriorates into fragmented, hesitant, and incoherent syntax. Throughout Act III, scene iii, Othello speaks in short, clipped exclamations and half-sentences such as “Ha! ” and “Dost thou say so? ” There is also notable repetition, as in “Not a jot, not a jot” “O, monstrous, monstrous! “O, blood, blood, blood! ” and “Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her! ” Such moments, when Othello shifts from his typical seemingly effortless verse to near inarticulateness, demonstrate the extent to which Othello’s passion has broken down his self-control. In Act III, scene iii, he is still speaking in mostly coherent sentences or phrases; but this is no longer the case in Act IV, scene i. Othello’s last speeches are dignified, but they lack purpose and he does not seem to have a full understanding of all that has happened.

He uses the first speech to condemn himself and his ghastly deed; this is more than likely a reaction of anyone who has come to the realization that they have wrongfully killed a loved one. It could be argued that Othello does indeed fall from a great height in terms of his personality and syntax, however it is rather foolish of Othello to lose control in such a way that he stoops to eavesdropping on conversation in order to satisfy the thoughts in his mind and it is this apparent fragility makes him more of a target for Iago’s manipulation.

In conclusion, I believe that Othello does not merit the criteria of tragedy. However his failures in fulfilling the criteria are more significant than his achievements. It would be wrong to suggest that Othello isn’t a tragic hero; he shattered all racial prejudices and maintained an honourable position in the army. However as the duplicitous Iago increases his pressure in manipulation, Othello crumbles into a character that is relatively unrecognisable from his former self.