Othello by its nature as one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, is a play doubtlessly open to interpretation. Indeed the words of the Edinburgh Review of 1850 highlight the state of confusion it has created. “… all critics of name have been perplexed by the moral enigma which lies under this tragic tale”.
Yet, it is not only the moral ambiguity that confuses audiences. Indeed, debate surrounds the play’s conformity to the tragic genre. With Othello widely classified as one of the most notable tragedies of Shakespeare, surely one would be correct to assume that it encompasses the manifold of tragic conventions set out by Aristotle? Indeed this is not the case, and the principle reason for this derives from the numerous subversion witnessed throughout the play- especially from the protagonist.
In the view of Aristotle, tragedy: “is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.” Aristotle, set forth also the inclusion in all tragedy of the ‘tragic hero’, a protagonist of naturally high birth who suffers because of: circumstance; the influence of others; a character weakness (hamartia); an excessive pride (hubris) and death at the end.
For many, Othello encompasses the tropes of Aristotelian tragedy set forth above, even epitomising the tragic hero. It is these tragic conventions that has resulted in debate as to whether Othello really is the archetype of the tragic hero. Indeed, the protagonist’s complex characterisation through both Aristotelian and Shakespearean tragedy, casts doubt on his status as a tragic hero.
One, can argue that Othello’s influence by external factors undermines the crucial ‘hamartia’, of which Aristotle cited as the source of the tragic hero’s suffering. The external factor in question here, is the role of the tragic villain, the conniving Machiavel who supersedes the role of the tragic flaw in bringing about the downfall of Othello. Significantly, the reader becomes aware of Iago’s influential role at the most earliest of stages: Act I Scene I. The remark from him that “…We cannot all be masters, nor all masters Cannot be truly followed”, establishes the role of the villain who is presented as the individual force that affects the downfall of Othello. The dramatic irony associated with the remark is a chilling reminder to the audience of Iago’s duplicity; which is not known to the protagonist. The assertion therefore foreshadows not only the tragic villain’s subversion of Othello’s authority, but his directing of events that result in the downfall of Shakespeare’s central character.
The irony and inevitability surrounding Othello’s fate moves the audience through pity and fear as we prepare for his misfortune and suffering at the hands of Iago, not himself. Yet, whilst Othello may have been foolish to believe the lies of Iago, the drawing upon postcolonial readings emphasises that as a black man of feeling, humanity and conscience, he towers above the white man’s world as an individual of immense moral proportions, who simply takes people at face value, without questioning their integrity.
Whilst the role of Iago is immediately defined, the audience may wonder why one who professes to be such a cunning villain would be so open in revealing his own nature and motive. The reason for Iago’s candour is explained by the fact that his confidence, needs an audience. Someone has to appreciate the virtuosity of his villainy: this is why Iago makes it clear, through soliloquy, that the audience to whom he looks for genuine appreciation of his skill and resourcefulness is ourselves. Iago captivates the audience with a charm and energy that almost traps us into endorsing his deviousness.
Fintan O’Toole comments that Othello was too easily manipulated to be a hero. Indeed, his manipulation by the tragic villain demonstrates an open subversion of Aristotle’s tragedy. Instead the protagonist’s gullibility over the menial handkerchief portrays Othello, not as the tragic hero, but rather as deluded and pathetic. Therefore, it is the impact of this external factor that highlights Othello’s hamartia is not responsible for his death. What Iago’s role emphasises more, is perhaps the first traces of the modern domestic tragic genre. Indeed, his desire for manoeuvre and control emphasises a more ground level tragedy that inwardly exposes not only the power of the human condition, but a reflection of a world corrupted by deceit.
Whilst credence must be paid to this, in the matter of Othello and Iago, it cannot be justly argued that Iago was the predominant cause of the calamities that befell Othello. Indeed, it is clear that Othello’s fall is as a result of his hubris and hamartia, the intrinsic components in Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero. As an individual of high stature, namely the Venetian General, Othello is characterised by Shakespeare as the protagonist laced with pride and principle. Therefore it can be argued that Othello’s hamartia is as a direct result of the excessive pride, displayed through his treatment of others.
The reader witnesses this hamartia and hubris when Othello states, in relation to Cassio, how he “loves thee” whilst condemning Cassio to “never be an officer of mine”. The juxtaposition between the finality yet abruptness of this statement emphasises Othello’s devotion to principle. It portrays his visceral desire for honour in both friendship and love, and foreshadows the same abruptness displayed to Desdemona in their final, fateful encounter . It is Othello’s self-induced jealousy that is his hamartia. The influence of external factors are cast aside by Othello’s self-defined valour of which leads him to pursue mere presuppositions regarding Desdemona and Cassio’s mere discussions. It is clear therefore that Othello is a protagonist, whose hubris sparks his hamartia, resulting in his tragic death and epitomisation as the tragic hero.
Yet, in spite of this it could be argued that Othello’s hamartia is somewhat strengthened by the indisputable gender stereotypes of Venetian society at the time. Although a social force, it, rather than influence; simply supplements the already excessive pride, derived from Othello’s position as general. Indeed, one’s hamartia has to be sourced from somewhere.
Not surprisingly, the parallels here between Othello and Death of a Salesman are great. Similarly to Othello, Willy Loman’s hamartia is also exacerbated by his hubris, but undoubtedly is reinforced by social factors such as the American Dream which causes Willy to pursue false ideals. Desdemona, the source of the Othello’s jealousy is presented as a character of growing autonomy and assertiveness. Her growing courage results in his control being lessened, yet the misogyny prevalent in Venetian society presents him as a weak and feeble male unable to exercise patriarchal power, the arguable source of Othello’s jealousy. It can be argued therefore, that Othello’s jealousy is amplified and that Othello explores what critics describe as the ‘fatalism of overmastering passion’.
When one considers the play Othello, he is not the only tragic hero. To be a tragic hero one must suffer more than they deserve, defeated at the end of the play, have a tragic flaw and suffer through the influence of an individual. Therefore because she encompasses these conventions, it can be argued that instead Desdemona is the epitome of the tragic hero. Through Shakespeare’s inclusion of her hubris and hamartia, some critics view Desdemona’s death as self-induced through some flaw in her personality and the terrible fate that befalls her. Desdemona’s hamartia, namely determination, is eminent throughout the play
Firstly, Desdemona, like most tragic heroes, endures suffering that is greatly out of proportion to her mistake. Desdemona is increasingly characterised as a determined and independent female, subverting her presentation of the submissive woman of Venetian society. Indeed the remark that she is “the general’s general” presents her as a force to be reckoned with. Yet, she exercises this determination to try and resolve the conflict between Cassio and Othello after the drunken brawl, which results in the jealousy of Othello and her eventual tragic death. Furthermore, Desdemona’s suffering and hamartia is exacerbated by the role of the tragic villain, Iago. Throughout the play, Othello is indoctrinated with the belief that his wife has engaged in sex outside of marriage, and from her growing autonomy it would suggest that she is not the obedient female one would expect. Arguably, Iago’s duplicity and Othello’s blindness causes Desdemona to suffer directly. Yet, Desdemona’s death is the source of great catharsis and upliftment. Indeed, whilst the audience is moved through pity and fear due to the undeserved misfortune of this protagonist, she can be considered as the sacrificial heroine who is sacrificed for a cause, the figure whose death exposes the callous Iago. The parallels between both Desdemona and Othello are strong, thus positioning her as the epitome of the tragic hero instead.
However, it is clear that Othello really must be the epitome of the tragic hero through his death at the end of the play, generating anagnorisis and reinforcing the noble nature the hero’s status, all defining features of Aristotle’s conventions. As a result of murdering Desdemona, the revealed truth consolidates the emotions of both Othello and the audience, with his character left a state of anguish.
Whilst individual audience members may display resentment towards Othello for his cruel murder of Desdemona, his question of “why should honour outlive honesty?” immediately purges these feelings, of which submit to immense sorrow. The realisation that he has betrayed not only his own virtue, but Desdemona’s honesty acts both as anagnorisis and catharsis, creating the penultimate tragic experience for the audience. Indeed, his tragic death enables us to empathise with the ‘Moor’, whose only crime was passion. Othello’s anagnorisis and remark that he “loved not wisely but too well” enables the audience to witness the power of lust in the human condition, and how it can lead one, no matter how noble to make the most damning of errors.