The figure of the hero is set apart from the common herd of ordinary men by virtue of his special qualities and abilities; in some works, this separateness is literal - he is in a strange land apart from his own kin. To see how this alienation enhances the tale of the hero's conflict, The Odyssey, Beowulf and The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be considered.
Odysseus, Beowulf and Othello are all warrior heroes. Odysseus, in The Odyssey, has been instrumental in the victory at Troy, and now fights to return to Ithaca and bring his men safely home; more struggles await him there. Beowulf, a great fighter who has proven his mettle in many conflicts, hears about the depredations of Grendel on Heorot Hall and journeys there to rescue Hrothgar's people. His role in the conflicts against the monster and its mother is qualitatively different from that in the one with the dragon, which occurs on his own turf. Othello has distinguished himself as a general in the service of Venice, so much so that in spite of the obvious racial discrimination of the time, he is respected and admired; as the play begins, he is preparing to defend the Venetians against the Turks.
One of the dramatic advantages of setting the hero's exploits somewhere other than in his own land is that it serves to acquaint us with his heroic abilities. In a group of strangers, first of all, introductions must be made. The hero's past adventures (in a sense a credential for the adventures yet to come) must be recited for the benefit of the new acquaintances, and by extension for the audience. Thus, Odysseus in Book IX, although modestly attempting to remain anonymous at first, recounts the tale of his adventures to Alcinous, the Phaeacian king, and his court: "What then shall I tell you first, what tell last, Since the heavenly gods bestowed many cares upon me" (Odyssey, Book IX, lines 14-15,-page 114), all of which cares he then enumerates. Beowulf, although known to Hrothgar, still in his first speech recounts his victory over the five Giants and the sea-serpents as reasons for his arrival. Unferth's taunt gives him grounds for expanding on his exploits by telling of his contest with Breca: "I had more sea-strength, outstaying Breca's, and endured underwater a much worse struggle." (Beowulf, lines 533-534,-page 68). Othello wins Desdemona's hand by letting her coax stories of his exotic exploits out of him, she having overheard bits and pieces as he told them to her father "wherein I spake of most disastrous chances, Of moving accidents by flood and field, Of hair-breadth 'scapes i' the imminent deadly breach." (Othello, Act I, Scene III, page 920). By being thus "forced" to tell their story, the audience, both fictional and actual, is apprised of the heroism and resourcefulness of the hero without his appearing to boast unduly.
The other advantage to locating the hero somewhere other than his own country is that it emphasizes his separateness. Each of the heroes is essentially a foreigner, although this aspect plays out a bit differently in each instance. Odysseus' duty is to his men and to his family; therefore, his struggles are mostly concerned with avoiding the perils that keep him from Ithaca, and he does not fight to benefit the friends he meets along the way. Still, his travels are beset by unfamiliar dangers and he must adapt himself to the countries and cultures he encounters: "He saw the cities of many man, and he knew their thought; On the ocean he suffered many pains within his heart." (Odyssey, Book I, lines 3-4,-page 3). Beowulf fights for both the Danes (the Scyldings) against Grendel and its mother, and later for his own people, the Geats, against the dragon. When Wulfgar announces Beowulf's arrival, he says to Hrothgar, "Men have come here from the country of the Geats, borne from afar over the back of the sea." (Beowulf, lines 361-362,-page 62) Othello fights for the Venetians as he has done for many years. Cassio exclaims, "Thanks, you the valiant of this warlike isle [Cyprus], That so approve the Moor. O! let the heavens give him defense against the elements, For I have lost him on a dangerous sea." (Othello, Act II, scene 1, page 923) From these quotations, it may be seen that their foreign status is stressed in each instance by the metaphor of the sea, the gulf that separates them from their kin and from the kinship of mankind.
The enemies with which they contend are not only mere mortals but in many cases monsters. Odysseus encounters the widest assortment, ranging from Scylla and Charydis (essentially personifications of natural dangers), to the Sirens and the Lotos-Eaters (distractions), to the Cyclops and Circe (superhumanly powerful beings). Beowulf competes against other mortals, but the deeds glorified in the poem are those in which he fights the two monsters and the dragon. Othello fights a human foe, the Turks, although it is fair to say that they were more or less demonized by the Christians of both Othello's and Shakespeare's time. We learn, however, that he also encountered "the cannibals who each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders" (Othello, Act I, scene 3,-page 920). Thus their triumphs over these forces are human triumphs; although they are men set apart, they achieve victories that glorify the potential of mankind to prevail over evil.
In order to achieve these victories, the heroes must draw upon unusual forces of their own, or their very humanity will prove to be their undoing. Odysseus is certainly not without natural resources of his own. He is described as "the man of many turns" (Odyssey, Book I, line 1, page 3); his fighting prowess defeats the suitors for Penelope's hand, and only he can draw the great bow. He is also intelligent and resourceful, as is demonstrated by his plan to trick the Cyclops and escape from the cave. However, he is also aided by Athena, who takes his part against Poseidon and enforces his rescue from Calypso's wiles. If it were not for Athena's assistance, it is doubtful that it would have reached his home. Beowulf obviously has superhuman powers of his own, among them the ability to stay underwater for days. His strength is superhuman, as Grendel learns to his cost - "The upholder of evils at once knew he had not met on middle-earth's extremest acres with any man of harder hand-grip." (Beowulf, lines 750-754,-page 74) However, in order to defeat the she-monster, who is invulnerable to weapons made by man, he is fortunate in finding "a Giant sword from former days," which shears "through the death-doomed flesh." (Beowulf, lines 1558 and 1568,-page 100) Thus, by fighting superhuman enemies by superhuman counter-measures, both Odysseus and Beowulf triumph.
However, when they must rely on or cast their lot with other (lesser) humans, tragedy results. Odysseus nearly fails in the journey and his men are taken from him, when they unwisely slaughter Helios's livestock: "They lost their own lives because of their recklessness, the fools," (Odyssey, Book I, lines 7-8,-page 3) and nearly Odysseus's life too. Similarly, when Beowulf fights with the dragon, his cowardly men run away, and the aged chieftain is killed, although he first kills the dragon. "Too few supporters flocked to our prince when affliction came," says Wiglaf. (Beowulf, lines 2882-2883,-page 142) Poor Othello unwisely allows Iago to impose on him, and ultimately kills the innocent Desdemona and himself. Thus, the warrior hero survives and prospers only so long as he remains solitary.
Othello does not return to his home and fails to establish a family for himself in Venice; his goods are inherited by Gratiano, his wife's uncle, upon his and Desdemona's deaths: "Gratiano, keep the house and seize upon the fortunes of the Moor, For they succeed on you," says Lodovico. (Othello, Act V, scene 2,-page 948) However, both Odysseus and Beowulf ultimately end their heroic travels and settle in their homeland. Odysseus convinces his people and his family that he is truly the hero returned and makes short work of the importunate suitors. However, by all indications, that is not going to be the end of it, and he and his faithful retainers struggle into their armor and prepare to do battle once again, "Gray though they were, warriors by necessity." (Odyssey, Book XXIV, line 499,-page 334) Odysseus and his son Telemachus do glorious battle, but Athena preempts the fighting before they get in over their heads. She tells Odysseus to stop fighting and "he obeyed and rejoiced in his heart." (Odyssey, Book XXIV, line 545,-page 336) Thus, he resigns himself to a peaceful old age in his Ithacan home, but gives up his status as warrior. The torch is passed to his son Telemachus, whom Athena has also mentored throughout The Odyssey.