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Othello, The Moor of Venice
There are a number of very specific literary conventions that a dramatic work must have to adhere to Aristotle's multi-faceted definition of a tragedy. One of the principle components of this definition is that a tragedy chronicles the downfall of a tragic hero. Tragic heroes are well-renowned individual with a wonderful set of virtues descended from decidedly noble lineages who are plagued by one (and only one) tragic flaw which is directly attributable to their demise (Aristotle, 2008). Upon first read, Othello, the Moor of Venice, certainly appears to follow many of these conventions. However, closer discernment of Shakespeare's characterization of Othello reveals that the Moor is not a truly Aristotelian tragic hero. Despite the fact that he is heroic, good at arms and a verifiable military leader, Othello has far too many flaws that contribute to his downfall. Whereas tragic heroes only have one fatal flaw, Othello essentially has three: he is exceedingly wrathful, he is prone to physical illness in the form of headaches, and he is too credulous to rightfully belong to the pantheon of tragic heroes.
Othello's choler is merely one of his many flaws which help the prudent reader to discern the fact that he is not truly a tragic hero and that therefore, Othello is not a true Aristotelian tragedy. At best, Othello is considered a "noble, simple-soul" (Schwartz, 1970, p. 297) -- which is still a far cry from a true tragic hero. Granted, the titular character certainly has a right to become angry with all of the machinations enacted upon him by Iago. Yet Othello's angry temperament combines with his other flaws to allow the reader to perceive that with so many faults, he is not truly a tragic hero. The fact that Othello is quick to become angry is indubitable. He kills Desdemona, his wife, in a murderous rage -- after he suffers from a physical headache and fully believe Iago's lies. Prior to that, he loses his temper with Desdemona and actually hits her, which the following quotation demonstrates.
DESDEMONA: Why, sweet Othello,
OTHELLO: [Striking her] Devil!
DESDEMONA: I have not deserved this.
LODOVICO: My lord, this would not be believed in Venice,
It is understandable that Othello is under the influence of Iago and his plot to make the former believe Desdemona has engaged in acts of infidelity that violates Othello's marriage to her. The physical repercussions of such stress, in the form of headaches and seizures, are understandable as well. Yet to actually raise one's hand and to strike a woman, who receives that person by calling him or her "sweet," certainly demonstrates a quickness to anger that one should ideally mitigate with a sense of temperance. This anger is emphasized that traditionally, critics have viewed Desdemona as "divine" in her goodness and intentions (Seamen, 1968, p. 81). Othello's anger is underscored in this passage by the fact that Desdemona claims she is underserving of the blow. Equally revealing about the extreme nature of Othello's anger is the fact that he strikes his wife in front of another. People may hit their spouses on occasion -- to do so in public or in front of people indicates a large amount of wrath. Therefore, this passage shows how quick to get angry Othello is, which is just one of many character flaws that negates his status as a tragic hero and that of this play as an Aristotelian tragedy.
It is the confluence of faults which renders Othello not deserving of the status of a tragic hero -- this confluence exacerbates each of his individual flaws, especially his physical ailment that manifests itself in severe headaches and seizures. It is no coincidence that Othello falls into such an epileptic trance in the first scene of the fourth act. That act begins with Iago manipulating Othello by telling him lies about Desdemona's infidelities. Othello's credulity leads him to believe the liar. Subsequently, Othello becomes angry, asserting his second fault through a series of incoherent statements. Yet finally, Othello's anger and credulity result in an epileptic fit in which he falls into a trance. The subsequent quotation readily proves this point. "Iago: My lord is fall'n into an epilepsy:/This is his second fit; he had one yesterday….The lethargy must have his quiet course" (Act IV Scene I). This quotation is immensely important in indicating that Othello has too many flaws, including a propensity for physical ailment, for one to categorize him as a tragic hero. Firstly, it demonstrates that Othello's epilepsy is recurring. Iago's pointing out that Othello also had a similar epileptic attack "yesterday" proves that the current one is no anomaly -- rather the Venetian leader has an overall propensity for incurring such attacks. Secondly, this passage suggests that this particular ailment physically incapacitates Othello which renders it a negative attribute. Iago's decision to let the full brunt of Othello's attack complete its "course" shows the reader that when this condition asserts itself within Othello, he is helpless. As such this particular condition is rightfully categorized as a flaw which, when one pauses to consider the Moor's other flaws of wrathfulness and gullibility, effectively negates his perception as a tragic hero since such heroes generally only have a single flaw.
Still, it is interesting to note that Othello's anger and his physical faults all pale in comparison to what appears throughout the play as his primary fault -- his extreme credulousness. Essentially, Othello is willing to take the word of one who is his enemy -- Iago -- over that of his wife Desdemona in regards to her infidelities. The purported 'evidence' that Iago contrives to provoke feelings of jealousy and anger that contribute to Othello's epilepsy is dubious at best. On more than one occasion he easily goads Othello into doubting the faith of his wife. An examination of the opening of the first act in the fourth scene readily indicates as much. All Iago has to do is mention some fictitious act of infidelity on the part of Desdemona and Othello readily believes him, as the following quotation reveals. IAGO: What,/To kiss in private?... Or to be naked with her friend in bed/An hour or more, not meaning any harm?" (Act IV Scene 1). This passage shows how utterly ridiculous some of Iago's tactics are for making Othello jealous truly are. Sexual jealousy has been deemed "the chief subject of Othello" (Bell, 2002, p. 80) In this quotation, Iago is asking Othello what harm is there in Desdemona's kissing another in private, or lying in bed with a "friend" while completely nude. Both of these notions are ridiculous, and someone more discerning and less gullible than Othello would certainly realize that if either of these two situations actually did happen, and involve someone's wife and another man, that this would be an egregious violation of that marriage. Iago's discussion of these actions as if they were not problems is an obvious attempt to prey on the gullibility of Othello and make him jealous. That he succeeds can only mean that Othello is extremely gullible for falling for such a ploy. This credulousness is a fault which, in combination with his others, renders Othello unacceptable as a tragic hero.
Shakespeare indicates to the reader relatively early on in the play that Othello is gullible. When Iago first formulates his plan to cause tension between Othello and Desdemona by insinuating her lack of faith to him and their marriage, he makes it perfectly clear that this particular character flaw is existent within Othello. As Iago conceives of his plot against his military superior, he thinks to himself, "The Moor is of a free and open nature/That thinks men honest that but seem so/And will as tenderly be led by the nose/As asses are" (Act I, Scene 3). The crux of the correct interpretation of this passage is found in discerning the meaning of the metaphor at the end of it. In that metaphor, Iago compares Othello to a mule, and denotes that he can lead Othello -- which means to get him to believe Iago's machinations due to his immense credulity -- as one can literally lead a donkey by the nose. Iago can only do so due to Othello's "open" nature, which allows him to attribute an honesty within men that is actually not there. This honesty is more than likely due to Othello's own upstanding nature, since never in the play is he "characterized as an able dissembler" (Andrews, 1973, p. 273). The overall significance of this passage, however, is not simply in the fact that Othello is gullible -- which is a definite character flaw. Were Othello only credulous, one could still consider him a tragic hero, since these heroes traditionally possess one fault which brings about their downfall. The problem, however, is that it is not Othello's gullibility that leads him to strike Desdemona: it is his anger. It is not Othello's credulousness which makes him fall into two epileptic…[continue]
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