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Aristotle's Poetics is the most informative piece of work on the nature of art. It is in the Poetics that Aristotle defines the fundamental nature of tragedy. For Aristotle, what defines tragedy (and all art, in general) is in the way that it is imitation (Golden 142). Every form of art (qua imitation) can be compared in terms of the artistic means, object, and manner used in their creation. In the tragic form, imitation is made of a very controlled process where the different elements of action and character lead the spectator to have a certain insight into the meaning of what it is to be human (142). In trying to understand Aristotle's view on art, it is important to understand that it is "based on an equation of poetry with the process of representation, and not on any accidental quality such as meter" (142). Poetry comes thus from a controlled representation, and one of these forms of representation is the tragedy in which Shakespeare's Othello is a perfect example because it embodies all of the Aristotelian principles -- such as reversal and recognition, the tragic hero and his tragic flaw, and complication and denouement.
Othello is a play about a tragic hero whose heroism slowly unravels in a world that is frayed by love, friendship and his obsession with masculine honor (Zerba 2). What makes Othello such a tragic figure is that it is not that he lacks virtue, but rather, he has too much of it. He is a figure who is almost too much for the world that he lives in and the title Othello, the Moor of Venice, is Shakespeare's way of showing just the distance that is between where Othello is from and Venice (Green & Sheridan 90).
From the very beginning of the story, there is a feeling of alienation and a clear difference between Othello and others, which is perhaps why Othello feels that he needs to find social acceptance in order to be happy. This alienation that is set forth is an example of tragic form, whereas in ancient tragic forms that alienation may have been set up by depicting a mythical world, in Othello, the setting is contemporary and the alienation has to do with Othello being from somewhere else and looking different from everyone too. We can almost say that Othello doesn't belong in the world in which he resides as he seems too noble and grand; yet this is what perpetuates his alienation. However, despite this inherent alienation, Othello is a noble figure -- which is one of the requisites for being a tragic hero. His tragic flaw, another requisite, as already noted, is that he has too much virtue -- precisely what makes him so noble in the first place. Having Othello be a foreigner is one way that Shakespeare created complication in the plot of Othello. There is a very distinct feeling that Othello stands alone, even though he has a loving wife by his side. The marriage has its own complexities -- for example, Desdemona's father upset that she married a Moor. There are more complications that are brought up in the play -- that of an imminent war and Iago's machinations. All of these things are necessary in making a great tragedy, according to Aristotle.
In considering Othello's nobility, we understand that his nobility comes not from a title that he wears, but rather by how people in the play talk about him. He is described as honorable, truthful and courageous. While certainly even noble men have bad things happen to them, in the case of a tragic hero like Othello, when something tragic happens to him -- it affects a lot of people who fall with him. Othello's suspicion is precisely what leads to his downfall and with him he takes Desdemona and Cassio -- both individuals who had his best interests at heart. His nobility is also what complicates the play even further than the incidents set in place.
In his Poetics, Aristotle says that tragedy is "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete in itself, and of a certain magnitude" (7). That is to say that tragedies must deal with topics that are considered somber as they deal with human beings doing serious things to themselves and to each other and this results in very serious consequences for everyone involved. Aristotle thought that tragedies had to have a cause and effect nature -- that is, things had to grow out of each other. All of these things, when connected, are what lead to the hero's downfall. In the case of Othello, his tragic flaw is what leads to his downfall. Othello is unjustly suspicious of those that he can trust and he can't seem to get over his suspicions no matter what people tell him. Looking at the play from a contemporary perspective, we can wonder if Othello's suspicion have anything to do with the fact that he is different from everyone else. This brings us back to the idea that Othello is completely alienated because he is away from his homeland and because he looks fundamentally different from everyone else. While this is probably, it is hardly ever discussed in criticism or it is underplayed (Berry 315). While we can believe that Othello's tragic flaw is something that is inherent and something that he can't escape, we can also wonder if his suspicion is fate at work (like it was for Oedipus) or perhaps he just lacks sound judgment. Whatever the reason, however, the piece is there and his downfall, no matter what it can be attributed to, make it a tragedy and Othello a tragic hero.
Aristotle talks about a cathartic reversal in Poetics. Aristotle believed that in tragedies (as he thought they were the best plays) reversal and recognition were used in order to achieve catharsis. This is precisely what happens in Othello. Othello has much good luck at the beginning of the play, but this is totally reversed by the end. Aristotle also believed that tragedy had to have a moment of recognition. In Othello, there is a moment of recognition for Othello when he realizes what the situation is (that he has been manipulated by Iago and that he has murdered the one person who truly loved him). This moment of recognition can also be considered a reversal because it puts Othello in a place where he hasn't been before. He is now acutely aware of what has transpired. Othello meets Aristotle's requirement that there must be a catharsis because all of his anger and suspicion has now been taken over by sorrow and grief for his actions. This is the moment too at the end of the play when we know Othello has had a cathartic reversal because we, as audience members (or readers) feel genuinely sorry for him and we actually wish that there could be some other way for him to live. What is clear is that by the end of the play the audience views Othello in a different way much like the tragic hero himself does.
The reversal that occurs can also be considered an epiphany because it is the moment where everything can be seen clearly. For Othello, unfortunately, his reversal takes place much too late because he has now killed his wife. Emilia tells Othello that she was the one who gave Desdemona's handkerchief to Iago and thus Othello realizes that he has been a fool, manipulated by Iago. He understands clearly, but too late, that Desdemona was pure and honest and that he has done something very horrible; however, there is no turning back. Othello is in a situation now that he will clearly be punished for although he is able to get the news that Iago has been captured. While this might be a bit of relief for Othello (as is stabbing Iago), it lasts momentarily because he must still come to terms with the fact that he has killed his wife. Othello decides that the noble thing to do is to kill himself and while it may seem like an easy way out for contemporary audiences, Othello's suicide is an act of a great statesman who believes in death before dishonor. By killing himself, Othello is making a statement that his acts were immoral and thus the honorable thing to do is to kill himself for them. In his last words, Othello gives a speech as a last attempt to save his reputation so that people will remember him how he used to be.
I have done the state some service, and they know 't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose…[continue]
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