The Aristotelian Tragedy and Shakespeare S Othello Research Paper

Excerpt from Research Paper :

Othello Is a Tragic Hero

Othello is an Aristotelian tragedy

This paper will show that Othello can be correctly labeled a "tragic hero" and that the play fits the form and function of the Aristotelian tragedy according to the model as it is understood and interpreted by critical scholars.

Defining the tragic hero and the Aristotelian tragedy

The tragic hero is good, valorous, true to life and consistent

The Aristotelian tragedy is complete, an imitation of an action and produces a cathartic effect through fear and pity

Othello is a Tragic Hero

He is Good

The senate loves him because he is strong

Desdemona loves him because he is brave

His men love him because he is a leader

He has Manly Valor

He is viewed as a moral man

He is unafraid of meeting a challenge

c. He is true to life

He has faults and weaknesses

He falls

d. He is consistent

He alternates between insecurity and boldness

He goes from love to hate to love again

IV. The play is an Aristotelian tragedy

a. It produces the necessary catharsis

b. It shows the complete action through tightly controlled advancement of plot

V. Conclusion

a. Othello fits Aritstotle's definition of a tragic hero

b. The play fits his definition of a tragedy

Othello and Aristotle's Concept of the Tragic Hero

In Poetics, Aristotle gives four conditions for what constitutes a tragic hero. He also uses Sophocle's Oedipus of Oedipus Rex as an exemplar of the tragic hero, as that character embodies each of the four conditions. It may also be said, however, that another character embodies each of these four conditions -- and that would be Shakespeare's Othello. Othello is indeed a tragic hero, and the play may be characterized as an Aristotelian tragedy. This paper will show that Othello can be correctly labeled a "tragic hero" and that the play fits the form and function of the Aristotelian tragedy according to the model as it is understood and interpreted by critical scholars.

It is first necessary to define the tragic hero in Aristotelian terms and then a definition of the Aristotelian tragedy will be given. According to Aristotle, the tragic hero must be 1) good -- that is, better than the average person (and therefore great), 2) he must possess "manly valor" or be someone from whom much good is expected, 3) he must be true to life -- that is, his actions are not unreasonable or unbelievable, and 4) he must be consistent -- which is to say that even if his character shows inconsistency as a weakness, he should be consistently inconsistent (Aristotle, 1970, p. 43). As for Aristotle's definition of tragedy, he says that it should be "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament ...; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions" (p. 43). Thus, there is a purpose to the Aristotelian tragedy and it is that the work should purge the audience of emotions of fear and pity. If as Barstow (1912) asserts, the aim of the human life, according to Aristotle, "is happiness," then the tragedy is an imitation of an action that ends in unhappiness. At the same time, it may be argued that in this "fall," there is some knowledge of self that is restored. Therefore, the tragedy both purges and restores some truth or reality and this is what is called catharsis. In short, the Aristotelian tragedy should have a tragic hero and be cathartic. Othello has and does just this.

Othello embodies the first condition of the tragic hero by being better than ordinary men: he is perceived as good by all around (except Iago), loved by the Senators (that is, before they find out he has eloped with Desdemona), respected for his military might, loved for his honor, and admired for his steadfastness. When he speaks, people listen, and men follow. According to Bates (2007), Othello's words are "capable of mesmerizing the hardened heads of the Venetian Senate," (p. 190) and his tongue is as majestic as his arm. Thus, Othello is no ordinary soldier, leader or man. He is above others in his goodness and therefore more is expected of him. To boot, he is also an outsider (like Oedipus -- which is an added bonus if one were to compare him to the most perfect tragic hero, according to Aristotle). Othello is not from Venice: he is a Moor -- that is, black. And his union with Desdemona is a matter that seriously upsets her father. This union, in fact, will be the first wrong step for Othello in his fall from grace. Instead of respecting the opinion of Desdemona's father, he and she went behind his back and married. Thus, the good (or great) character makes a wrong move at the outset of the play and sets up a course of action that will bring him down. In Othello, that course of action is prodded along by the villain Iago.

However, Othello is a moral man and possesses the manly valor that Aristotle calls essential as the second quality of the tragic hero. He is, for example, asked by the Venetian senate to save the city from the invading marauders -- and he agrees to do it even though he has just been married. Of course, his marriage only points to his valor -- for without it, Desdemona would not have fallen in love with him. Yet he does have it and it is what attracted her to him: as he notes in his speech to the senate, she often asked to hear his stories, showed her fright and then asked to hear them again. He is also extremely loving and doting towards Desdemona, speaking of her as though she were an angel who dropped from heaven to be his. This will, of course, all change once Iago gets into his head and plants seeds of jealousy that grow "to tyrannous hate."

The third quality that Othello embodies is his trueness to life: there is nothing false or unbelievable about Othello. He acts as a man would act and thinks like a man would think in his situation. His elopement with Desdemona is understandable: he and she both know her father would not have approved had they asked him and so to get what they want they do it behind his back. This is a fair reproduction of human nature -- but it is something that has its consequences. Her father suggests that she has betrayed him and may betray Othello -- and so he, too, plants the seeds of suspicion and jealousy in Othello's mind, even before Iago does. Othello is also unused to being in love and having to deal with all of its attendant emotions. He may be a senior and an experienced one on the battlefield -- but in the field of love he is as green and immature as any young lover -- and it shows once his suspicions are aroused: he hasn't the capacity to trust his wife or beat down the intruding thoughts, and as a result he gives into the foulest villainy ever conceived.

This change in his character might suggest that Othello is inconsistent and thus not a fit for Aristotle's fourth and final condition of the tragic hero. But his inconsistency is actually consistent with his character. In other words, Othello is consistently inconsistent: he is insecure with his romance (which is why he weds Desdemona in the dark of night without her father's permission); yet he is bold in his actions with her (he marries her in spite of the consequences he knows will follow -- and he meets those consequences head on, delivering a fine speech that calms all the senators (save one -- Desdemona's father). He is insecure with his marriage and does not know how to handle his suspicion -- and yet he is also bold and publicly rebukes Desdemona in front of everyone, causing a scandal among the visiting nobles (and he is bold in his final punishment of her, when he snuffs "out the light" of her soul by killing her). Thus, his character is one that is inconsistent all throughout the play, moving from insecurity to boldness at alternate strokes, rushing from one extreme to the other and therein contributing to his own downfall.

For these reasons, Othello is certainly a tragic hero, as he meets the four conditions of the tragic hero as posed by Aristotle. So may the play also be defined as a tragedy? According to Shakespeare, it may -- since he calls it one in its very title. But would Aristotle call it one? Can it be considered an Aristotelian tragedy? The answer is yes. It imitates an action that is complete and that purges the emotions of the audience through pity and fear. The…

Sources Used in Document:


Aristotle. (1970). Poetics. (trans. by Gerald Else). MI: University of Michigan Press.

Barstow, M. (1912). Oedipus Rex as the Ideal Tragic Hero of Aristotle. The Classical

Weekly, 6(1): 2-4.

Bates, C. (1997) 'Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love', Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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