Analysis Of Shakespeare's Othello Through Aristotelian Description Of A Tragic Hero

“Othello” is viewed as one of William Shakespeare's most prominent plays due to its themes of military, politics, good and evil, racial prejudice, love and marriage and sexuality. Often when the protagonists die from Shakespeare's plays, the readers would categorize the play as a tragedy, however, not all tragic plays define the tragedy conditions outlined by Aristotle, and not all protagonists who died in the play meets the Aristotelian description of a tragic hero.

Othello, the protagonist in “Othello”, the Moor of Venice, is subject to inspection of whether he is a great tragic hero in the typical Aristotelian description of the term. Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero extends to several different components that serve together as a set of criteria that ultimately determines whether Othello is truly a great tragic hero. However, the thorough analysis on Othello conducted based on the criterias of Aristotle’s definition reveals that his characterization is certainly not in agreement of a conventional tragic hero. As he holds an opposition to the Aristotelian statement that a tragic hero must be highly noble, have a single flaw that leads to his downfall and uncovers his fate through his own actions.

As Aristotle describes a tragic hero as a decent man who holds a high position and falls because of a flaw within himself, one of the primary facets that defines a tragic hero is a remarkable person due to his noble birth. Othello however, does not hold such a noble lineage, he is just a Moor serving in a Venetian army. Although he holds the position of a fairly high-ranking general in his army, he does not have a nobel birth and in fact, earned his ranking through hard work. The fact that he is a Moor is a point of contention with some of the characters; Iago and Roderigo for example, referred to this fact about Othello as they described Othello to Desdemona’s father as “an old black ram”. Iago further showed the ignobility of Othello by describing the sex between Othello and Desdemona as “making the beast with two backs”, emphasizing on the fact that Othello is black, and thus an unhonorable creature.

Although Othello does garner a significant amount of respect from certain remarkable figures in the Venetian army and his bravery is proven to a certain extent by living in the predominantly white Venetian society, this only fulfills partially the criterias that are needed to be considered noble. As abusing woman is referred to as an act of weakness and cowardice even in the current society, Othello’s public humiliation and harm to Desdemona drastically lessens his image being a noble general. Desdemona’s innocent reference to Cassio slowly pressures Othello until he finally snaps and strikes her in front of Lodovico. Unlike Othello, Lodovico as a true gentleman states “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice”, which further emphasizes the monstrosity of Othello’s actions. In the final scene, Othello even described himself as “of one whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away”, exposing him being unworthy of his reputation of trustworthy and moral, thus proving that his characteristics are at great variance with the nobility that conventional tragic figures should hold.

The importance behind the noble nature of any tragic hero is that these heroes are all good creatures except for a tragic flaw, or so called hamartia, a single great flaw that brings to the tragic hero’s downfall. Other than this flaw, the characterization of the tragic hero should be fairly stable. However, a thorough analysis has proven Othello to have more than just a single flaw, which condemns Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. In fact, two tragic flaws are found after a close read at “Othello”, with Othello being exceedingly gullible and choleric due to his jealousy. In the beginning of the play, Iago describes Othello as “will as tenderly be led by the nose, as asses are”, stating the fact that Othello can easily be manipulated like leading a donkey by the nose. Through the play Iago created a series of exaggerated measures to fool the general in believing in Iago’s own words over his wife’s. Just this idea not only suggests that Othello is not of a noble birth as such people are usually perceptive and alert, but also proves the fact that Othello can be controlled with ease.

Othello’s lack of discernment is one of the tragic flaws that pushed him to his downfall, as he should have easily been able to see through Iago’s tricks but instead took his words over his own wife’s. This gullibility was caused by both “his free and open nature, that thinks men honest that but seem so”, and his outrageous jealousy coming from his constant doubt on whether his wife cheating on him. Just by calling over Cassio and pretending to be asking him about Othello’s wife but rather a different woman, Iago is able to convince Othello that Desdemona, his wife, is cheating on him with Cassio and persuade Othello in “having Cassio nine years a-killing”, and “letting Desdemona rot and perish and be damned to-night”. Aside from his credulous nature, Othello also has a second flaw, and that is his proclivity towards anger. He is certainly possessed by anger when he hits Desdemona in front of Lodovico and calls her a whore.

In the final section of the play, Othello’s anger continually rears itself, especially in his dealings with his wife. When he is about to kill Desdemona he questions her on giving the handkerchief to Cassio. His anger definitely took over him as he would not even think of the possibility that his wife might be innocent, even if she swears “by her life and soul”, and tells Othello to “send for Cassio and ask him”. It is not one of, but both Othello’s angry suspicions of Desdemona and his gullibility that ultimately led to her murder, and Othello’s own death, proving that Othello is not a tragic hero by means of the Aristotle definition.

Last but not least, one of the most common but central characteristics that a tragic hero must have is that “he must discover his own fate through his own actions, not by things happening to him”. The idea of fate is significant in this concept because it explains the fact that despite the nobility of the tragic figure, he is destined to fail due to some supernatural fortune. A tragic hero should find out his own fate through his own actions without the affect of others, creatures or things, and this is not the case for Othello.

Othello murdered his wife and lost his own life not because of reasons he found out through his own actions, but through the manipulation of another man, Iago. He ended up with death in the end of the play simply because he believed in the fantasies that Iago created and was not able to see through them. In this case, he did not discover his own fate but was rather affected by Iago’s claims. It is Iago who slowly leads Othello in believing on Desdemona’s affair with Cassio and ultimately to his want of killing both his own wife and Cassio. By hinting that there may be a relation between Cassio and Desdemona, Iago successfully draws out Othello’s suspicion for his wife. By talking to Cassio and telling Othello that the handkerchief he gave to his wife has been given to Cassio, Othello is convinced to believe that the affair between Desdemona and Cassio truly exists. And ultimately, by hinting Othello that Desdemona and Cassio might be “kissing in private”, and could have been “naked with Cassio in bed, an hour or more, not meaning any harm”, Iago taunts Othello to his final decision of killing both Cassio and Desdemona. This whole process of fate discovery was not done by the actions of Othello, but by Iago creating an illusion for Othello to be more and more lost in, which is exactly the opposite from Aristotle’s description for a tragic hero.

William Shakespeare’s “Othello” is one of the most famous plays ever written, but while most readers consider the book itself to be a great tragedy and the main character Othello, to be a tragic hero, there are multiple aspects of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero that Othello is not congruent with.

10 October 2020
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