Why Othello Is An Aristotelian Tragedy Research Paper

Length: 5 pages Sources: 6 Subject: Literature Type: Research Paper Paper: #25298430 Related Topics: Oedipus Rex, Heroes, Forgiveness, The Pearl
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Othello as Tragedy

Othello as Tragic Hero

Aristotle defines tragedy as "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" (Aristotle, 1970, p. 43). The main points of the definition are found here: tragedy should be cathartic and should be a complete representative of a serious action. Moreover, Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero is that he must be better than the average man in order for his fall to be that much more dramatic and moving. In order for a character to be a tragic hero he must first of all be good, conforming and appropriate to the moral standards of his times, true to life, and consistent. With this in mind, it is fair to say that Othello certainly stands out as a work of tragedy and the title character as a tragic hero. This paper will discuss why Othello may be classified as a tragic hero and how the play conforms to the model of the Aristotelian tragedy.

Firstly, Othello is beyond good: he is great. He is envied by Iago, loved by his loyal soldiers, loved deeply by his wife, and lauded by the senators of Venice. Othello is described favorably by the men of Venice, as he has valiantly defended their city against the Turks. He has earned the respect of the senate and his language is "embellished" and artistically ornamented, as Aristotle notes a good tragedy's language should be. His defense of himself before the outraged father of Desdemona is nothing short of brilliant: indeed, as Bates (2007) notes, Othello's words are "capable of mesmerizing the hardened heads of the Venetian Senate," (p. 190). Like Oedipus, Othello is also an outsider -- a Moor who has converted to the religion of the people he defends. Also, whereas they are super-civilized he is more at home on the battlefield. He is a warrior, not a head of state. His skill lies in war, not in domesticity. This is partly what leads to his undoing: he wrongly brings the domestic life to the battlefield (taking his new wife with him to the war). The other part that leads to his undoing is his terrible jealousy. But these are the fatal flaws, so to speak -- just as in Oedipus the fatal flaw was wrath. However, aside from this, Othello is not only a good man but a great man, whose service to the state does not go unrecognized. In fact, it is precisely because Othello is so valiant, manly, masculine and unlike the other Venetians that Desdemona has fallen in love with him.

Second, Othello is appropriately moral and propitious and has the "manly valor" that Aristotle speaks of (p. 43). He is called upon to save the city once more in the first Act and he dutifully accepts the request, even though he has had to defend his character at the midnight hour because of his elopement to Desdemona. Their elopement is understandable, however, because given his race as a Moor, it is unlikely that her father would have ever conceded to their marriage. And the two love each other. Neither pressured the other into matrimony but both wanted it equally. Othello also only pursued Desdemona after she made it clear that she wanted him to do so: she essentially asked him to woo her with more of his frightening tales of battle, which no other man in Venice could have told. And on top of that he was invited by her father to the house, as a man in good standing with only of Venice's top officials. He is respected for his valor, his deportment...


It is only after he falls, giving in to his jealousy, that he renounces his Christian faith and takes up a demonic creed: "Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell! / Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne / To tyrannous hate!" (3.3.507-509) Othello declares, vowing to tear his wife "to pieces." This language in contrast with the beautiful language of love, admiration and respect at the beginning of the play shows the depth of the fall of Othello, and is part of the action of the cathartic work. Once Othello realizes what he has done and comes to greater knowledge of himself, as Oedipus does in Sophocles' play, the cathartic effect is most fully delivered. It is, after all, a tragedy "of the heart," as Boyce (1990, p. 474) notes.

Thirdly, Othello is true to life. Being true to life is important as Aristotle observes because it keeps the drama grounded rather than fantastic. His virtues and status are not unbelievable and the decisions he makes are perfectly understandable in terms of the social mores of the time and place. He indeed has a "fatal flaw" as White (2000) says. Yet, as Barstow (1912) notes "Aristotle finds the end of human endeavor to be happiness" and thus the flaws and failings struggle with the desire to be good -- and this creates the dramatic tension that is not resolved until the end of the play (p. 2). Othello, for instance, is capable of becoming angry, cruel, misguided, but also capable of forgiveness, of humility, of love and friendship. He is, in other words, a good representation of human nature. That being said, he is extremely sensitive about how others view him. He is aware of being an outsider and thus does not wish to be perceived as a savage: this is why he speaks so loftily and spiritually of his love for Desdemona, as though there were nothing physical about it -- which is not believable. Othello is trying to overcompensate for being a Moor by being seen as one who does not have "appetites." Iago sees this and will use it to his advantage: he exploits Othello's weakness and insecurity in this sense. In this way, Othello also become extremely sensitive to the thought of his being cuckolded by Desdemona. He, a man of great stature and steed, cannot bear the thought of such ridicule. He fears he will be mocked and scorned for all time (4.2.53). Indeed, by fearing what others think, he reduces himself and becomes as envious and spiteful as Iago, which validates what White (2000) says: "We are all Iago now," meaning that just as Othello, the good man, falls to the level of the villain, so too do we all take part in that fall, when we act as mischievously as Othello's demonic advisor.

Fourthly, Othello is consistent. He is not consistently inconsistent as Oedipus is, but rather he is consistent throughout: his flaws of insecurity and jealousy, manifested in the beginning of the play, grow terribly and exponentially throughout as Iago plies upon them and adds fuel to Othello's low-burning fire. But Othello also maintains his dignity and his greatness: even as he spurns Desdemona, he does so from a place of righteousness and pride. He rejects her as though she were slime and he golden. But even this is not the extent of it. In the end, he realizes that she was not slime but rather golden and he the base Indian who threw a pearl away. In acknowledgement of his faults, he kills himself as though he were slaying the base Indian. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword -- a maxim which is true for Othello, the soldier, who knows best how to deal with the enemy. Yet, Othello also retains the lover in himself: "No way but this, killing myself to die upon a kiss (5.2.420-21)." He dies kissing the woman he has loved and killed. It is a terrible ending which should have a very devastating effect on an audience: it catapults the audience into grief.

Thus, the play is effective in purging the emotions as Aristotle says a good tragedy should do: it compels the audience to pity and fear. Othello's fall is great because he stood at such a great height above ordinary men: he was better than the average man and yet he fell so far. Part of what should make the audience feel fear is this: if he could fall, how much more likely could we? Part of what makes the audience feel pity is this: it knows that Othello was a good man and is in need of mercy, just as the audience should be aware that it itself is in need of. By showing how a good man such as Othello, who is true to life, valorous, consistent and better than the average person, can fall to a terrible low, Shakespeare develops an Aristotelian tragedy that is designed to evoke pity and fear in the audience, which…

Sources Used in Documents:

Reference List

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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