Othello as a Tragic Hero William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy “Othello, the Moor of Venice” (c. 1604, as reprinted in Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Arp, Literature: Structure Sound and Sense, 6th ed. [Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1993]1060-1148) is arguably one of the finest, if not the finest, tragedies in the literary history of Western civilization. This paper discusses Othello as a “tragic hero” and compares him to the great Aristotle’s concept of what a “tragic hero” actually is. First, we need to understand the characteristics of a so-called “tragic hero” as defined by the Greek ritic, Aristotle.
He indicates that a tragic hero must have these characteristics: (1) Be a nobleman, prince, or person of high estate; (2) Have a tragic flaw, and a weakness in judgment; and (3) Fall from high to low estate. (Hubele). Using the Aristotle criteria, we can easily classify Othello, the Moor, as a tragic hero. At the time, it was common practice for the Italian city-states to have a foreigner, with proven military capabilities, serving as the head of their Army. Othello, an African Moor of noble birth, is just such a character nd held the highest ranking military position as Governor-General of Cyprus.
The city of Cyprus was a city-state in the great state of Venice. His title alone, Governor-General, exudes an air of nobility, confidence, and strength. It defines someone who is held in tremendously high esteem by the people of Venice. During Act 1, Scene 3, the Duke and a few Senators are discussing issues around a table when Othello enters the room. It’s clear that Othello is held in high esteem when, as he enters, one of the senators states Here comes Barbantio and the valiant Moor(47).
Othello’s confidence in himself, another of his positive attributes, is clearly portrayed as he defends himself and his recent marriage to Desdemona, the daughter of the Venetian Senator Barbantio. In his defense, he associates himself with one of the great ones of the world. He also demonstrates confidence in himself and his actions when Barbantio, Desdemona’s outraged father, accuses the Moor of witchcraft. His stature, that of a tall, dark, African Moor, combined with his personal magnetism, assist him in gaining the respect and allegiance of the Venetian people and its senators.
The respect of the people is brought forth in Act 1, Scene 2, when Montano, the Governor of Cyprus, is awaiting the arrival of Othello’s ship, following a strong storm at sea, and remarks he has “served him’ and the man [Othello] commands/ Like a full soldier” (35-36). He also refers to him as the “brave Othello” (38). Othello is also held in awe by his men, the soldiers, and throughout the play is referred to as a “captain”, a term carried over from Roman times which depicts a commander of a company of men, or a so called “soldiers soldier”.
He is a proven leader of en and known for his military knowledge and skills. His soldierly ways are a result of serving in some form of military capacity since the early age of seven. Dignity, courage, a strong belief in religion, self control and sound jud~ment are a few of Othello’s other positive attributes portrayed in the play. The writer, A. C. Bradley characterizes him as a “truly admirable character, of heroic stature, exemplary self control, and wonderfiil imagination… ” (Mehl, Dieter, Shakespeare’s Tragedies: An Introduction, [New York, Cambridge University Press, 1986] page 66).
His confidence in himself and his courage are learly evident when Othello makes a stand before Barbantio, Roderigo and Iago, when following the drawing of their swords, Othello, as opposed to withdrawing in the face of danger taunts “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (59-60). Shakespeare continues to portray Othello as a well respected nobleman throughout his play, from beginning to end. Shakespeare also shows a soft side when he displays Othello’s love and confidence in his wife Desdemona.
In Act 1 Scene 3, Othello entrusts his wife to the care of another gentleman and his wife as he must go off to war in Cyprus. The entrusted man and is wife happen to be his good friend lago and his wife Emila. Othello displays his trust and confidence in both his wife and his ensign [Iago] when he remarks to Iago “to his [Iago] conveyance I assign my wife” (286). As you move through the play, Shakespeare intriguingly begins to show Othello’s faults and negative character traits, which eventually lead to his destruction.
His position as Governor-General, the allegiance from both the people of Venice and his soldiers and his confidence in himself can all be considered major contributors to his overall negative character flaws. In other words his ositive aspects are responsible for bringing out his negative side, his flaws in character. His flaws include his all too trusting nature and his eventual insecurities in himself that arise in the form of jealousy for his wife Desdemonia. These flaws begin to surface following his decision to select Cassio, as opposed to Iago, as his lieutenant, his second in command.
He did so because he felt Cassio was well versed in the military sciences and Iago had merely proven himself on the battlefield as a warrior, not necessarily a leader. Surprising, Othello later releases Cassio from his position as lieutenant ollowing his [Cassio] fight with Roderigo in which Montago is wounded after trying to stop the fight. All of this serves as merely one of the results of Iago’s revenge and his ploy to destroy Othello and all those associated with him. Iago is actually consumed with the anger, vengeance and will to destroy Othello.
On a good note Cassio is again placed in the graces of good and is appointed as the honorable Governor of Cyprus. Othello’s decision to choose Cassio fosters a deep resentment in the eyes of Iago, his one time good friend and confidant. Iago convinces Roderigo, a well respected Venetian who is nfatuated with Brabantio’s daughter Desdemona, that if paid enough he will eventually topple the new husband Othello, and in turn make Desdemona available to the love of Roderigo. Both of these character flaws eventually lead to the downfall of Othello, this outwardly noble, confident and strong hero.
It’s in Act 3, Scene 3, the “temptation scene”, that the turning point in this romantic tragedy appears. It is actually on the beach, following the storm at sea, while all are awaiting the great Othello’s return by ship, Iago notices a strong relationship between Cassio and Desdemona as they are holding a onversation. Iago’s plot to destroy Othello unfolds and he plans to portray Desdemona as an unfaithful wife, a wife having an affair with Cassio. Iago’s plan evolves further and he gets his first opening following the part when Desdemona pleads for Cassio’s return to the position of lieutenant in Othello’s Army.
Iago implants the seed about Cassio’s and Desdemona’s relationship. Othello demands proof of the supposed torrid affair out of his tremendous love for his wife Iago lies and schemes his way out the conversation and continues on his ploy of destruction. Othello’s trusting nature, his greatest character ault, appears throughout the play but nowhere is it more evident than in the “temptation scene”, Act 3 Scene 3, when addressing Iago he states “I know thou’rt full of love and honesty, and weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath .. ” (118-119).
His faith in Iago is again ironically depicted in Act 5, Scene 1 when he [Othello] states “O brave Iago, honest and just, that hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong [Cassio’s alleged seduction of Desdemona)! Thou teachest me” (31-33). This statement follows Othello’s murder of this wife Desdemona, and goes to show that Othello ad faith in the cynical Iago even after lago’s plan had been successfully executed by the unknowingly naive Othello. Othello’s second most noticeable character flaw is that of jealousy. His jealousy evolves from Iago’s deceitful plans. One reason why some readers think Othello is “easily jealous” is that they completely misinterpret him in the early part of this scene [Act 3, Scene 3].
They fancy that he is alarmed and suspicious the moment he hears Iago mutter “Ha! I like not that”, as he sees Cassio leaving with Desdemona” (35). But, in fact, it takes a long time for Iago to excite urprise, curiosity, and them grave concern – by no means yet jealous – even about Cassio, and it is still longer before Othello understands that Iago is suggesting doubts about Desdemona too. (Wronged in 143 certainly does not refer to her, as 154 and 162 show) Bradley, A. C. , Shakespearean Tragedy, 3rd edition, New York, St. Martin Press, 1992], page 397). It’s plain to see his love for Desdemona is very strong and he doesn’t lose faith in himself and his love so easily. However, later so strong becomes his jealousy that it leads him astray from his previous positive traits of confidence in himself, calm demeanor n stressfbl times and his abilities to make sound judgements. In one of his last speeches to Desdemona in Act 3, Scene 3, Othello chides himself for becoming angry with his wife and following her departure remarks to himself “Excellent wretch!
Perdition catch my soul / but I do love thee! And whom I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (90-91). His statement proves Iago’s plan is working and Othello’s’ trust in him [Iago] will not falter. Othello is clearly emanating pangs of jealousy here, he is hurt and his suffering is evident. He once held himself among the “great ones” (273) yet now his ove is destroyed and is cursed by a “destiny unshunnable” (275). The turning point in the play is here and the end will proceed swiftly from this point. The end nears as Othello’s portrait of himself is weakened. … the final Othello is not a pretty sight to watch… Consider his whimpering, his refusal to be himself, his uncontrolled screaming. ” (Kirschbaum, Leo, “The Modern Othello”, (reprinted in English Literary History II, ([Dec 1994] pages 283-296). He now sees himself as a man deceived, by both Desdemona and Cassio, a man full of jealousy, and a man whose honor is now in question. Even as the final climatic murder takes place Othello deceives himself by telling himself it is his duty to kill her, it is not an act of revenge.
His mythology in killing her is “… she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (Act 5, Scene 2, line 6). “The murder of Desdemona acts out the final destruction in Othello himself of all the ordering powers of love, of trust, of the bond between human beings”. (Bloom, Harold, Modern Critical Views, William Shakespeare The Tragedies, New York, Chelsea House Publishers, c1985], page 85). Obviously Othello portrays the characteristics of a hero as defined by Aristotle. He clearly was a man of nobility, of noble character and held in a very high estate.
He began in this illustrious play by displaying all those positive traits which man continues to search for in order to fulfill a long and happy life. They included the ability to sincerely love and trust his fellow man/woman, his innocence, his religious background, his self control, sound judgment and confidence in his inner self as a human being. All these traits quickly came crashing down because of character flaws in other people such as deceit, fraud, seffishness, hatred and a deep desire for revenge.
Following Othello’s trust for his good friend Iago he clearly demonstrated flaws in the forms of bad judgments, jealousy, loss of self control and his lack of self confidence in himself All this eventually led to the murder of the wife he continued to love through the end and his own eventual self inflicted death. His fllll from high to low estate is clearly visible. Shakespeare depicted all these events in a rather short, deep, highly emotional, passionate, intense play. Sheakspeare’s ability to develop such deep emotional characterizations remains unparalleled in modern world.