searching for an example that follows Aristotle's principles for creating the perfect tragedy, we need look no further than William Shakespeare's play, Othello. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must possess certain characteristics. These include a plot that is easily remembered and structured to arouse pity and fear within the audience. Additionally, Aristotle writes, "Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect" (Aristotle VIIII). A great deal of importance is also placed on the action of the plot. According to Aristotle, "A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both" (Aristotle X). These events must "turn upon surprises" (Aristotle XI) in order to fulfill the requirements of a tragedy. Suffering is also essential for a tragic hero to emerge.
In addition to a powerful plot, the character of the play must meet certain requirements to be considered a tragic hero. Aristotle believed that this type of character should exist between two extremes. In other words, he is not completely good or evil, yet his "misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty" (Aristotle XIII). This is commonly referred to as the characters "tragic flaw."
The character must also be associated with valor, nobility, and greatness. Additionally, the character must be true to life and consistent (Aristotle XV), even if this results in being consistently inconsistent. (Aristotle XV) With these definitions in mind, this paper will explore how Othello measure up to Aristotle's definition.
Shakespeare's Othello meets all of these requirements. When we are introduced to Othello, we become aware that he is a man of greatness and nobility. For example, he commands Brabanzio and his men to "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them/Good signor, you shall command more with years/Than with your weapons" (Shakespeare I.ii.59-61). He addresses the enemy with his authority. In addition, Iago admits to Brabantio that "Another of his fathom they have none/To lead their business" (I.i.153-4). We also know that Othello is a great warrior from his great tales. For instance, he says:
fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak, unbonneted, to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached. (21-4).
Furthermore, we hear more of the warrior's tales of victory when Othello is telling the Duke of how Desdemona fell in love with him. Othello tells him, "She loved me for the dangers I had passed,/And I loved her, that she did pity them" (I.iii.166-7).
Desdemona reinforces how she fell in love with Othello by telling her father:
My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord saw Othello's visage in my mind
And to his honors and his valiant part
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. (I.iii.247-51)
Paul Cantor, critic for the Southwest Review, supports with this idea, commenting that "Othello has the dignity and self-possession of Aristotle's great-soured man. Secure in his heroic virtue, he is unshakable, fully in control of himself and of any situation" (Cantor).
However, Othello is not perfect. Shakespeare uses Iago to point out Othello's tragic flaw, which Iago reveals when he tells Roderigo:
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are. (Shakespeare I.iii.393-6)
Additionally, Iago also tells Roderigo that Othello "Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,/And, I dare think, he'll prove to Desdemona/A most dear husband" (II.i.280-3). In reaction to Othello's character, A.C. Bradley states, "Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect... he has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women" (Bradley). Our first impression of Othello is a positive one. This fact will help us to feel pity for Othello later in the play.
Bradley also notes that Othello's nature was "indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable" (Bradley). Cantor agrees, adding another significant aspect to Othello's demise. He claims that Othello's self-image becomes connected with how Desdemona's perception of him. He explains that Othello's "self-possession came from the fact that he could derive his sense of worth from his own heroic deeds, something largely within his own control. But now that he has come to take pride in the fact that of all the men in Venice, Desdemona singled him out to be her husband, he has made his self-esteem dependent on another person's opinion and hence more insecure. His doubts about himself lead to his doubts about Desdemona" (Cantor). Othello's flaw become Iago's greatest weapon.
Shakespeare cleverly uses the character of Iago to reveal Othello's weaknesses and to also add complexity to the play. Additionally, we know from the very beginning of the play that Iago is motivated by evil intentions because he was overlooked for a promotion. Iago also hints that he has heard rumors that Othello seduced his wife while overseas. This is revealed when he says, "I hate the Moor,/And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets/He's done my office" (Shakespeare I.iii.380-3) and later he says, "For that I do suspect the lusty Moor/Hath leaped into my seat" (II.i.286-7). Iago is a skillfully crafted character and he adds to the complexity of this tragedy. In fact, Haim Omer claims that Iago is Othello's "therapist from hell" (Omer). We can certainly agree with this notion. Iago seems to know exactly how to provoke Othello's jealousies to the point of destruction. This is clear when Iago says such things as, "I like not that" (Shakespeare III.iii.35) and "Nothing my lord; or if -- I know not what" (III.iii.37) in regards to Desdemona being with Cassio. This scene is significant because it reveals the height of Iago's evil nature. He successfully pretends to be protecting Othello from the truth.
To make matters worse, Othello makes a dreadful mistake when he expresses his true feelings to Iago:
By heaven, thou echo'st me,
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to he shown. Thou cost mean something.
I heard thee say even now, thou lik'st not that,
When Cassio left my wife. What didst not like? (III.iii.I05-9)
This is all the extra ammunition Iago needs to know his scheme is working. Cantor claims that by "eliciting this speech from Othello, Iago has already won half his battle" (Cantor). In this way, Othello's tragic flaw can be seen and felt in a huge way.
Shakespeare does not stop there. To fully maximize Othello's flaw, he develops a greater sense of our mistrust in Othello's character through Iago. For example, Iago convinces Othello that he loves him and follows that up with a warning:
O, beware, my lord of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who certain of his fate loves the wronger,
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'ver,
Who dotes yet doubts, suspects, yet fondly loves. (Shakespeare III.iii.166-71) this scene almost makes us wonder how Othello can be so gullible. Because Iago has discovered Othello's weakness, it is easy for him to build upon it. His plan is only strengthened by Othello's gullibility. Once suspicion is planted in Othello's mind, Iago know just what to do to confirm those suspicions. He tells Othello to "Look to your wife; observe her will with Cassio./Wear your eye thus: not jealous, nor secure" (III.iii.195-6). Because Othello is the one who becomes suspicious, Iago has removed himself from any blame. Kenneth Muir makes an astute observation when he says that Iago "exploits the "virtues as well as the weaknesses of Othello and of Desdemona, weaknesses both of character and situation" (Muir 35). Iago's actions are so cunning, they surprise us. The element of surprise helps the play to fit Aristotle's requirements for a tragedy.
An example of Iago's outrageous behavior can be seen when he tells Othello that he witnesses Cassio using Desdemona's handkerchief to wipe his beard. We realize Othello's vengeance when he exclaims "O, blood, blood, blood!" (Shakespeare III.iii.449). From this reaction, we see many sides of Othello's flaw. He is jealous, he is prone to gullibility, and he is also quick-tempered. His anger turns to rage, just as Iago desires. Again, we witness the evil nature of Iago, who simply compounds Othello's anger. He pleads for Desdemona's life, which enrages Othello even more. Othello declares, "Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her!" (III.iii.473). Iago…