Othello Tragism William Shakespeare’s “Othello” presents all of the elements of a great tragedy, according to Aristotle’s definition: “A tragedy is the imitation in dramatic form of an action that is serious and complete, with incidents arousing pity and fear wherewith it effects a catharsis of such emotions” (Poetics 14) He also adds, “The language used is pleasurable and throughout, appropriate to the situation in which it is used.” The central features of the Aristotelian archetype are manifested in General Othello’s character. Although Othello is great, he is not perfect. He has a tragic flaw, hubris (excessive pride and passion), and hamartia (some error), which lead to his downfall. However, Othello’s misfortune is not wholly deserved. His punishment exceeds the crime, keeping him admirable in the theatergoer’s eyes. Before Othello’s tragic flaw results in his unfortunate death, he has increased awareness and gained self-knowledge or, as Aristotle describes it “has experienced a discovery.” (Poetics 15) All of this produces a catharsis or emotional release at the end of the play. A tragedy, when well performed, does not leave an audience in a state of depression but creates a shared, common experience.
What causes Othello’s downfall? Some critics claim that Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealousy while others insist that jealousy is not part of his character, that the emotion takes over only when Iago pushes him to the brink of insanity. Evidence in the play supports the notion of insanity. Othello doesn’t show himself to be jealous early in the play. It is not until Othello is manipulated by Iago’s skillful lies that he is forced to confront his jealousy and mistrust. His love and trust of Iago serve to prove his gullibility, Jealousy and self-doubt poison his sensibilities and innocence, and the realization of his blind trust leads to his sorrowful end.
As with most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Othello possesses all the virtues prescribed for the character type. He is of noble birth; he is self-controlled; he is religious; he has the respect of his men; and he demonstrates excellent leadership. His magnetism is what draws Venetian senators and soldiers alike and what captivates Desdemona. All of this supports the idea that he is not (at the play’s opening) a jealous, enraged, or mad man. He has convincing self-esteem which he later loses to the deception of Iago’s evil ploy. It can be noted that Othello’s character flaw is his blind trust and naivet.
These character traits contribute to his misled downfall. It would be neglectful, if not irresponsible, to overlook Iago’s role in the play. His hate for Othello and Cassio drives his evil motive through a string of lies affecting the entire cast. From the first act, the antagonist is troubled: I know my price, I am worth no worse a place. But he (as loving his own pride and purposes) Evades them with a bumbast circumstance Horribly stuff’d epithites of war, [And in conclusion,] Nonsuits my mediators; for, “Certes,” says he, “I have already chose my officer.” And what was he? Forsooth, a great arithmetician, One Michael Cassio, a Florentine (A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife), That never set a squadron in the field, Nor the division of a battle knows (Othello.
I.i.11-23) Iago never reveals his dissatisfaction with the military arrangement to Othello. Instead, he makes use of Othello’s innocence and trust to satisfy his wicked end. He constantly boasts of his love for Othello and patronizes him regularly throughout the play. At Iago’s first attempt to instill jealousy in the trusting Othello, he is successful. Othello’s concern at Iago’s implications entices him to learn more.
Iago plays a verbal game with Othello to arouse suspicion. This piques Othello’s interest and starts his mind to wonder. Iago is successful at the point he proclaims, O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But O, what damned minutes tells he o’er Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet [strongly] loves! (Othello. III.iii.163-168) One of the major qualities that comes to mind when assessing Othello is his trustfulness. He claims that Iago is a man of honesty and trust; “To his conveyance I assign my wife” (I.iii.286). Othello has no reason to distrust Iago at this point.
Time after time, Othello fails to see through Iago’s deceptions. Iago is a military man; Othello is familiar dealing with soldiers and men he trusts and, moreover, Iago has a widespread reputation for honesty. Othello needs to trust people; it is his nature; this is why he suffers anguish when he must choose between the alleged honesty of Iago and the honesty of his wife. Othello needs to trust his wife. In desperation, he cries: If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! I’ll not believe ‘t (Othello. III.iii.278-79) Othello also seems certain of Iago’s friendship when he clings to the one thing certain to him: O brave Iago, honest and just, Thou hast such noble sense (Othello.
V.i.31-32) The innocence of Othello can be observed early in the play. It is best evidenced (Othello. I.iii.) when Othello, defending himself against Brabantio’s ravings, says quietly and simply that he is “rude” (meaning “unpolished,” “simple,” or “unsophisticated”) in his speech, and that he is not “bless’d with the soft phrase of peace” (82); clearly, he does not try to assume a pose that may seem weighty or overly impressive. It would be unnatural and fraudulent for a man like Othello. But Othello’s innocence is shattered, as is his self-esteem, by Iago.
This is evident (Othello. III.iii.) when he says that he thinks that Desdemona is honest and yet, he thinks she is not. He does not know what to believe anymore. This becomes painful for him. Once a master of self-knowledge, Othello is reduced, by Iago, to a trembling, helpless tool. Othello’s mind and soul are torn with irrational images of Desdemona’s infidelity and his own unworthiness. Othello sees himself as an old man, an old cuckold, one who has treasured Desdemona blindly, beyond reason.
His pride in himself and in Desdemona’s love for him is destroyed. Othello is torn apart by self-loathing, reduced to the caparison of himself to a dungeoned toad. He feels he is cursed somehow. All of this self-doubt leads to the corruption of his near perfect character. Othello, convinced his wife is unfaithful, kills her out of what he claims duty rather than revenge. The truth is brought to life when Montano, Gratiano, Emilia, and Iago enter.
Othello insists that Iago knows the truth and for further proof, speaks of the handkerchief. When Emilia attempts to speak out at the mention of this, she is killed by Iago, her own husband. Iago calls her a villainous whore and a liar. Knowing he has been deceived, Othello rushes toward Iago in an attempt to kill him but is disarmed by Montano. Lodovico vows to punish Iago and wants Othello to return with him to Venice.
Othello believes death is too good for Iago but at the same time belittles himself. Riddled with guilt and his fall to Iago’s deceptiveness, he takes his life and on his final breath clinging to Desdemona, he asks for the curtains to be drawn, for Gratiano to administer the Moor’s estate, and for Iago to be severely punished. His awareness, come late, is his enemy in life and he dies. The transformation of Othello is intriguing. How a man of wisdom and self-esteem can be reduced to taking his life is worthy of analysis.
Being innocent and nave, Othello values the friendship of Iago too dearly and trusts blindly all of his deception. As Othello is slowly poisoned by the lies of Iago, the perception of his self-worth is tainted and he doubts his effectiveness as a leader and lover. Having gained awareness of his gullibility to the deceit of Iago, he shamefully ridden with guilt, takes his own life contributing to the tragic ending. There are many ideas and interpretations of Othello’s character. It would be bold to state that any one interpretation is completely accurate in light of not knowing Shakespeare’s original intentions. There is a wide range of essays and research available on the character flaw of Othello. Regardless of the opinions of his character, it is important to look at the underlying message of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Man cannot live by assumption. His reality must be grounded in truth and evidence. Bibliography Evans, Tobin, eds. 2nd edition. The Riverside Shakespeare.
Boston. New York. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1997. Poetics By Aristotle.
Translated by S. H. Butcher. Online. Internet. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Aristotle/Poeti cs-Body.html.