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Shakespeare's Othello: Is it a tragedy according to Aristotle?
Aristotle and tragedy
Aristotle defines tragedy as imitation of an action that is serious and has a certain dramatic and complete magnitude. Tragedy to Aristotle is something that is:
"A form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression. (Poetics, Part IX)
Aristotle saw tragedy as a simulation of an event that aroused pity and fear in the individual and, by doing so, served as a form of catharsis in the individual could identify with the plot and feel a certain sort of purging or relief (VI.2).
In fact, it is this sense of purging that most distinguishes the tragedy from the comedy or epic (for instance) in that it is the tragedy alone that possesses the emotions of fear and pity and, therefore, has the power to rid corresponding tension from the reader of audience (Gellrich, 1988).
For a tragedy to succeed, the audience must be able to identify with the hero or heroine. The hero or heroine, therefore, must be on the same level as the audience not being either all good or all evil. However, if the heroine is superior in some way, the element of tragedy (i.e. emotion) can be intensified (XIII.2-3).
The techniques of the tragedy lie in the fact that the disastrous end result consequent from a lapse of judgment, which culminates in an unfortunate action. If not for that small, minute piece of unfortunate judgment, the hero may still be saved (New York College). The fact that he is not, and that the calamity devolves on something that may have been prevented is ultimately what resolved in tragedy.
The shortfall is often hubris, or bloated pride where the hero is allowed to fall into some irrational, error ignoring divine warning or breaking a moral law. It is precisely because the offense is so small and unintentional and the hero's punishment so disproportionate to his crime that the corresponding emotion of pity and identification is aroused. The hero is human. The participant of the play, or reader of the story may have acted as equally as he and suffered as much. Empathy arouses the pity (Gellrich, 1988).
Aristotle presents the classic tragedy of Oedipus as example of the techniques of tragedy where tragedy is a plot that hinges ion a particular defining moment called a 'peripety':
A peripety is the change of the kind described from one state of things within the plot to its opposite… as it is for instance in Oedipus; here the opposite state of things is produced by the Messenger, who, coming to gladden Oedipus and to remove his fears as to his mother, reveals the secret of his birth. (XI.1-3)
All seemed to be stable and predictable in Oedipus and suddenly, in one abrupt moment there is a change of scene and our hero's world is turned in reverse order. An event happens that catapults the hero from happiness to fear or from ignorance to knowledge, for from happiness to calamity. And in tragedies that are skillfully wrought, these tumultuous overturns are performed by the technique called peripety. On one side, the pre-tragedy was piece. The peripety sundered the peace with tragedy and form then on the story moves to a rapid and deliberate close with one unfortunate mishap following the other to its unhappy end. Sometimes, the hero, as in the case of Oedipus, is unaware of the imminent tragedy until the very end. At other times, he and at least one other individual are fully cognizant of the approaching danger and helpless to prevent it. (XI.1-5).
Tragedies, too, consist of six parts: Plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and melody (VI.2). It is higher than drama in that it shows rather than tells -- thus its capacity for arousing catharsis, and, therefore, transcends history, which is simply an anecdotal retelling of events. History deals with the particular; tragedy with the universal and tragedy particularly arouses fear since it deals with a cause and effect pattern (the hero does this, even if unintentional, therefore a certain event is bound to occur), whilst history may be a saga of accidental or coindcintal occurrences. It is precisely because tragedy is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe, that we are frightened by its message (part IX).
Not only is the character important for the reader's identification with the tragedy, but the plot is equally potent too. The story, or plot outline has to be taut (precisely as Oedipus was) and specifically because, to effect, it has to be an imitation of life and life is taut consisting of breathless action. The plot has to have other characteristics too to hook:
It has to (1) be compact with a beginning, middle, and end, where the introduction (i.e. beginning) starts the cause-and-effect ripple; the middle intervenes standing as bridge between beginning and succeeding part; whilst the resolution (or end) is caused by the heretofore events. Aristotle terms this cause-and0-peffect chain leading up to the final moment "unraveling." Secondly, the plot must be compact in that it must be taut and self-contained with a structural unity and all events closely tied together leaving the spectator to be at 'the edge of his seat'. There must be no incidental occurrences. Rather all should deliberately cohere in one tight fuse.
The plot should also not be too brief; but neither too long.
Finally, it is better that the plot was complex rather than simple, turning abruptly on one single peripety that would herald tragedy (New York College).
The tragedy of Othello
Othello has most of the characteristics of Aristotle's definition of a tragedy.
The plot hinges on a peripety, but actually this peripety occurs almost at the culmination of the tale, rather than in the middle where Othello, after smothering his wife, and attempting to exonerate his actions to the Governor by mentioning the handkerchief as proof is then told that he were duped. Emilia is killed. Othello wounds Iago, and Othello commits suicide.
The play has a beginning, a middle of sorts (perhaps the plot of the handkerchief) and the end (the peripety leading to the denouement), but the plot is so complex that the middle is not so easily seen, and rather than one tight flow of cause-and-effect, per Aristotle, numerous plot lines seem to disentangle themselves and converge. There are numerous contrivances: Othello is accused of seducing Desdemona; Iago schemes to ruin Othello and persuades Refusing to engage Cassio in a brawl; Iago persuades Othello to suspect Cassio and Desdemona; whilst Cassio is having a relationship with Bianca, a prostitute. Emilia steals Desdemona's handkerchief leading to a denouement where Othello believes that Desdemona has been faithless to him. Rodrigo attacks Cassio; both are wounded. Iago stabs Rodrigo and accuses Blanca of the failed conspiracy to kill Cassio. Finally, Othello smothers Desdemona, realizes his error, Iago kills Emilia, and Othello wounds Iago, and finally kills himself. With the plot being as complex as it is, it fails to resemble Aristotle's conditions for taught ness and holistic simplicity. Rather, it is difficult to make out where a 'middle' occurred and with the countless killings and slaughtering and conspiracy arraigned against counter-conspiracy, it seems as thoguh there were several sub-plot (which indeed there are) and several denouements) within one whole.
On the other hand, readers and spectators can almost certainly identify with Othello. Loving his wife as he passionately did, he was betrayed into killing her by malice and the whole occurred due to a serious short sight and lack of judgment. The gods -- or fate -- was arrayed against Othello from the very start where his enemies constantly and consistently attempted to thwart him and finally achieved his destruction. The initial cause- and-effect error hinged rather on Rodrigo than n Othello with Rodrigo committing the first unintentional error of complaining to Iago that Iago had not informed him about the secrete marriage between Desdemona and Othello. Iago is upset with Othello because he believes, rightly or wrongly (and the story is not clear on this point) that Othello slept with his wife. He also blames Othello for promoting a younger man in his stead. Iago has, therefore, made it his life's objective to harm Othello. And he succeeds. Othello, innocent he may be, is wounded not by error on his part but by that on Rodrigo's part, unless we conclude that the elopement or secret marriage was a lapse of judgment that culminated in a flow of cause-and-effect for which Othello eventually suffered.
Othello, the hero, was neither totally good nor totally bad and here he coheres totally with Aristotle's image of what a hero of a tragedy should be. We identify with him for we see his human faults and realize that the same error, with intentional misleading resulting…[continue]
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