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Othello is a classical tragedy. Discuss this statement in the light of the play.

Othello is a classical tragedy. Discuss this statement in the light of the play.

The question of whether Othello is a classical tragedy relies on two major factors, the first obviously being the content of the play itself which I will discuss later, the second the definition of what a classical tragedy actually is. A classical tragedy can be defined as a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man of high estate. It was originally looked at by Aristotle, a great philosopher and dramatic critic of the fourth century BC. He stated that the chief characters of a tragic action should be persons of consequence, of exalted station. The leading personage should not be a man characterized by great virtue or great vice, but of a mixed nature, partly good and partly bad. His errors and weaknesses lead him into misfortune; this is precisely the formula for the tragic protagonist in Othello.

In accordance with the traditions of classical tragedy, most of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies involve the fall of a great leader. Othello is a slightly different kind of tragic hero, a general, but not a major figure in the government of the state. In many ways the play is more a tragedy of domestic life rather than of affairs of state.  As well as this, Aristotle maintained the importance of the sympathy and pathos felt towards the heroes of a tragic play, this is undoubtedly felt for both Othello and Desdemona in Othello and as such it can be argued that, in principle, Othello has the characteristics of a classical tragedy.

The portrayal of characters is particularly significant to defining the genre of a play as a tragedy. I have previously mentioned the crucial role of the protagonist; in Othellos case it is clear that we have Othello as the main male character, and therefore it is perhaps the characterisation of him and his development through the plot that is most crucial to the development of this discussion. Shakespeare has created, in Othello, a character consistent with traditional ideas of a classical tragic protagonist. The critic, F.R. Leavis[1] suggests that we should see Othello as a nearly faultless hero whose strength and virtue are turned against him; Iago himself tells of how he believes that Othello is of a constant, loving, noble nature, and his disintegration is consistent with Aristotle and others ideas of a classical tragedy. It is his classic tragic flaws  his pride and jealousy  that bring his downfall and the audience acknowledge the events in the play with a strong sense of pathos towards Othello, enhancing further his presentation as a tragic hero.

This will have been particularly true of the Elizabethan audiences that the play will have first been exhibited to. Othellos main strengths, such as honour, loyalty to ones army, and, as Leavis states, being the nobly massive man of action, the captain of men are those that the 17th century audience will have held in particularly high esteem considering their appreciation of the need for a general of this nature. When contrasted with Iago, the audiences favour bears even more strongly to Othello as Iago, with his constant, malicious betrayal of trust is the personification of the epitome of an Elizabethan delinquent. Othello is clearly the classical tragic hero that the title insinuates, even to the end as he is provided with the typical enlightenment of a tragic champion devastated, and the plot and supporting characters that surround him are equal to his role.

Shakespeares Othello is consistent not only with traditional, classical forms of tragedy such as the Greek tragedies analysed by Aristotle, but also with his own, Shakespearian tragedies and also Jacobean tragedy. Shakespearian tragedy often follows the simple structure whereby a high status person suffers increasingly as the play progresses, dieing at the end with some revelation of the cause and futility of their fate. They are also political, in that what happens to them affects the society in which they are present; we see this in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. In Jacobean tragedy there is often a revenge plot at the centre of the action, and indeed in Othello we see the formulation of Iagos revenge as a result both of Othellos promotion of the great arithmetician, One Michael Cassio and the possibility that twixt my [Iagos] sheets He has done my office, in other words the rumour circulated in Venice that Iagos wife, Emelia, has cheated with Othello.

Again, like many Jacobean tragedies, Othello is set in a place that Shakespearian audiences will have perceived as vice-ridden, decadent and full of villainy, perversion and secret love affairs which broke all the rules of society. These tragic comparisons all stand in support of Othello being a tragedy, though whether it is a classic tragedy lies more in the similarities it has with the ancient Greek and Roman tragedies such as those written by Seneca, a collection of his work having been recently published and much enjoyed by the Elizabethan audiences.

The basis of the tragedy of Othello lies principally in the character presentation, particularly of Othello, Desdemona and Iago. These three carry the plot between them, along with Michael Cassio though he can be seen as simply an instrument that is used both by Iago and Shakespeare himself in order to make the plot work. The tragic hero, Othello, is presented as good, honest and brave. His virtues include his ability to have risen from a slave to the rank of general, and governor of Cyprus. The man is clearly trusted, and in turn trusts, which is to be his downfall. Iago sees this weakness early on in the play, stating at the end of Act I The Moor is of a free and open nature, That thinks men honest that but seem to be so. Iagos intelligence is clearly portrayed from the start. In the opening scene he converses with Roderigo in eloquent speech, epithets of war; And, in conclusion, Nonsuits my mediators and later he is seen to exploit each character in turn for his own benefit, from his own wife, Emilia, to the valiant Moor himself.

Interestingly, it is Desdemona alone who seems to provide Iago with difficulties in conversation. He attempts to avoid direct dialogue, particularly on the matter of revealing himself in anyway. At the start of act II, Desdemona challenges Iago to reveal his opinion of her, and though a jovial atmosphere is maintained throughout, Iago avoids as best he can any direct revelation into his opinions, do not put me tot; For I am nothing but critical. The portrayal of the super-subtle Venetian, Desdemona, as a potential challenger to Iagos quest creates further dramatic and, importantly, tragic tension as the audience wait with baited breath to discover if she will determine the cause of her husbands jealousy. The fact that Desdemona is so virtuous and is portrayed almost as a martyr for goodness, in that her attempts to reinstate the innocent Cassio lead only to her eventual death, add to the tragedy of the play, bringing the play to a heart-rending climax with the deaths of the most innocent and/or exploited characters in the play; Desdemona, Emelia, Roderigo and Othello. Iagos exploitation of Roderigo and Othello, in particular, is clear to the audience principally thanks to the two monologues he makes, revealing his plans and the aims to which he acts. The true tragedy of the play lies in the helplessness that the audience feels as they behold the gradual demise of all of the characters in the play except for the villain, Iago.

In conclusion, Othello does fit into the boundaries of a classic tragedy. The characters fit perfectly into the roles of hero and villain, and the plot conforms to the tragic norms of Greek, Shakespearian and Jacobean tragedy which sees the heros tragic flaw exploited and his fall accompanied by a realisation of the reasons for which he now suffers. The Elizabethan audience will have acknowledged the tragic nature of the plot, and the treachery and betrayal embedded in it will have created great dramatic tension throughout.

[1] http://www.andweb.demon.co.uk/leavis.html

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