To what extent do you agree that the character Othello
As a tragic hero, Othello should be viewed within the context of Aristotle’s Poetics, within which contains the theories of tragedy and the traits a tragic hero must possess to ensure his downfall. These are seen as flaws which cause the hero’s own downfall regardless of external influences. It is undeniable that Othello bears some responsibility for his fall from grace. However, there are various other contributing factors such as the sadistic scheming of Iago and the element of chance, both of which play significant roles in Jacobean tragedy.
This is demonstrated in Act 1 when Brabantio says ‘this accident is not unlike my dream,’ a premonition that suggestively foreshadows Desdemona’s murder, illustrating the magnitude of Othello’s downfall. This lexical choice ‘accident’ alludes to Othello’s lack of ability to evaluate the situation and acting on what he perceives as ‘ocular proof. ’ This structural technique does not correspond with the Aristotelian model’s key premise, asserting that the tragic hero’s hamartia must be what leads his downfall.
Shakespeare’s revision of these classic laws allowed the potential for more conflict and thus appealed to this new type of audience, whose tastes have developed since the Aristotelian period. To understand the magnitude of Othello’s accountability, we must first consider Shakespeare’s characterisation and how that influences both Othello’s emotional and social downfall as his Achilles’ heel. Through Iago, Shakespeare exposes us to a tragic flaw in Othello’s character construct, his nature, which he describes as ‘constant, loving and noble.
This emotional integrity is reinforced through Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter during Othello’s speech, such as in Act 1 scene 3. This articulate control of language among the Venetian court shows the initial stability of his character and his ability to obtain respect from others, exactly what we would expect from a general.
His acknowledgement of Brabantio’s love and his desire to draw from Desdemona ‘a prayer of earnest heart’ emphasises his moral compass though the religious connotations of ‘love’ and ‘prayer. Shakespeare’s presentation of Othello is also synonymous with the Aristotelian model stating the tragic hero must be ‘virtuous. ’ As Shakespeare conforms to the Aristotelian definitions of ‘tragedy,’ some may argue that it is therefore Shakespeare who is responsible for Othello’s downfall, by in the exposition establishing Othello as having certain characteristics of a tragic hero to an audience schooled in classical literature, his downfall is inevitable.
As early as Act 1, when Othello is most dignified, Shakespeare incorporates numerous external conflicts that could potentially compromise Othello’s social and emotional stability, such as Brabantio’s anger that Desdemona shunned ‘the wealthy, curled darlings of our nation’. Using the collective pronoun ‘our,’ Brabantio linguistically dichotomises Othello from the rest of Venetian society, positively associated with the lexical choice ‘darlings’.
He further isolates Othello by claiming Desdemona was ‘abused, stolen from me, and corrupted By spells and medicines…’ alluding to the presuppositions held by a 17th-century audience against black people, associating them with witchcraft and demons. The use of external forces working against the tragic hero is more common in modern tragedies, and it suggests that his influence over his moral downfall – and the tragic events which determine his fate – are limited. However, the isolation of the protagonist is traditional in classic tragedy, and a structure which Shakespeare and other playwrights at the time based their tragedies.
Other prejudice occurs through remarks about Othello’s race. Despite that ‘racism’ was an indistinct concept; such connotations are addressed by Iago who uses the binary opposite of ‘black ram’ and ‘white ewe,’ to address Othello’s difference in skin colour. Though the ram symbolises fertility and aggression, the animalistic imagery alone would’ve been considered offensive to a Shakespearean audience as it is used to dehumanise Othello’s character and diminish his relationship with Desdemona, symbolically represented as purity and compassion.
Structurally, Iago creates this sharp contrast in Act 1 to construct the climate in which Othello alienates himself from his coveted wife. Iago could not conceptualise their spiritual connection, only perceiving what to him appeared like a fatal flaw. This sense of alienation later manifests through Othello’s own decay in language and morality, during which his own bestiality and jealousy is repetitively suggested: ‘I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapour of a dungeon Than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ uses. ’
By this third act, Othello’s language has degenerated from his sophisticated and courtly voice to a bitter and harsh tone, taking the conventional criticisms of Venetian society into his own idiolect, self-identifying himself as a ‘toad’. Linguistically, Othello reflects the very image of dehumanisation that a 17th-century audience would associate with someone of his origins. A Jacobean audience could also interpret this anguine image as a suggestion of metamorphosis, which to them would be further reason to believe Othello is associated with the supernatural.
When Desdemona’s enters, he complains of a ‘pain upon my forehead,’ metaphorically resembling horns of a cuckold and thus a degradation of his own character whilst echoing Iago’s use of metaphor in Act 1. Suggestions of ‘black magic’ are made more convincing through Shakespeare’s use of repetition as Othello exclaims ‘O, blood, blood, blood! ’ when reduced to thoughts of murder . This can be interpreted as an indirect reference to practising the dark arts due to its likeness to a chant, and the shift in narrative pace clearly presents Othello’s loss of control of his language once so articulate.
Alternatively, the ambiguity of whose ‘blood’ Othello is referring to arguably shows his loss of rationality. His passion to spill blood overrides his sense of judgment, and it may be this extent of passion which brings his tragic downfall upon himself. This view is explored by A. C. Bradley, who describes Othello’s tragic flaw as ‘that he believed what they believed; that a black man is an unattractive creature, not quite human, unworthy of love,’ alluding to a Jacobean society’s racist views of Othello.
Arguably Shakespeare condemns his protagonist to a tragic ending due to the overwhelming social climate which causes him to fulfil what an audience of the time would expect from him, and Othello’s tragic downfall becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as he adheres to this firm societal expectation. However, this argument can be opposed when considering the many explicit references to Othello’s transparent nature, including his claim to deliver ‘a round, unvarnished tale’ in Act 1.
This puts emphasis on Othello’s naivete within Venetian society, suggesting that Othello’s downfall is more than simply ‘inner evil. ’ This naivete is also expressed though Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony as Othello claims the native Iago is ‘of exceeding honesty And knows all quality with a learned spirit of human dealings,’ oblivious to the prospect of this ‘knowledge’ being used against him, causing him to rely on Iago’s word over Desdemona’s and his own better judgement.
Through Iago’s claim ‘I know our country disposition well,’ Shakespeare makes the audience aware that Iago recognises Othello’s weaknesses and thus could be what triggers Othello’s pathological jealousy and eventual demise. It also continues Brabantio’s dissociation of Othello in Act 1. Othello’s lack of scepticism is again displayed through his flawed perception of honour, ‘Certain, men should be what they seem,’ echoing Iago’s perception of Othello’s flaw being that he ‘thinks men honest that but seem to be so’ in the first act, thus resulting in a failure to recognise Iago’s true intentions.
Bloom describes Othello’s tragic flaw as ‘not suspecting subtle plotting in orders. ’ Othello falls prey to his ‘nature’s plague To spy into abuses,’ and the infectious connotations of ‘plague’ illustrates the force working against Othello and his moral integrity. The result of this manipulation is demonstrated when Othello eventually converges with this same violent use of language, most notably in Act 4 Scene 1 when a violent semantic field is created through the intense words ‘murder,’ ‘strike’ and ‘hanged,’ all of which are an explicit verbal representation of his downfall.
Due to Othello’s physical and mental isolation, Shakespeare presents an argument which contradicts the traditional interpretation of Othello’s hamartia as ‘pathological jealousy,’ suggesting that it could instead be his naivete which allows the ‘Honest Iago’ to creative the condition which causes him to fall prey to his strategic manipulation. As a modern audience we may debate whether Othello’s tragic flaw is anything beyond his ignorance, something which to us is relatable.
Additionally, it allows us to question whether the outcome would have been the same with a different character, straying from the Aristotelian model which labels the tragic hero’s hamartia as the cause for their downfall, regardless of externalities. Naivete is a significant contributing factor to his downfall; however we must also consider his hubris and obsession with outward image, both of which encourage the jealousy and paranoia that Othello expresses due to Iago’s deceit.
Its importance to the plot is foreshadowed by Cassio who exclaims ‘O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial’. One may consider pride as part of Othello’s culture and experience as a general, though this quality embedded by Shakespeare is unique to him and further justification that he must have the tragic fall from grace.
Although a concern for integrity is undoubtedly positive for the tragic hero, one could argue Othello’s fascination had destructive ramifications. It is clear that he valued his reputation more than his marriage with Desdemona, a view which labels Iago as no more than a catalyst to Othello’s downfall. Marian Cox describes Iago as ‘satanic in energy,’ though his description as a ‘demi-devil’ further indicates his limited responsibility of this tragic hero’s downfall.