It is not simply the existence of a tragic flaw that is the sole causation of the demise of the hero and other significant characters but rather the interplay between the negative externalities and the hero’s actions as a result of his tragic flaws which does so. In Shakespeare’s Elizabethan tragedy Othello, Othello’s hamartia arises from a magnified sense of jealousy, hubris and misplaced trust brought about directly by Iago’s diabolical intellect and a growing sense of insecurity. It is these uncontrollable factors in conjunction with Othello’s tragic flaws that assist in his collapse from respected general to deluded murderer.
The complex interactions between the protagonists of the play as well as strong characterisation allow for the emergence of one of Othello’s fatal flaws, misplaced trust. The Machiavellian character of Iago perpetuates the tragedy of the play by provoking hamartia within Othello. As soon as the play commences dramatic irony allows us to realise that Othello has labelled Iago, whom we know to be “Janus-faced” and deceptive, “I am not what I am”, as “a man of exceeding honesty”.
The constant declarations of Iago that he “hates the moor” are juxtaposed with the repeated description of an “honest Iago” in order to build up empathy for Othello. Iago’s ability to take advantage of people’s flaws and situations when they arise also allows him to manipulate Othello’s, “free and open nature” through the “pour[ing] pestilence into the ear of the Moor” and provide evidence through the planting of Desdemona’s handkerchief , a symbol of the love between Othello and Desdemona, in “Cassio’s lodgings”. His use of innuendo, “note if your lady strain his entertainment…much will be seen in that” and bestial imagery and similes, “were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkey” enrage Othello and spur him to condemn Desdemona as a “fair devil”. Iago’s deceitful brilliance further leads Othello, “a credulous fool”, to accept his lies about Cassio’s dream, where Cassio sighs “Sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves”, as a “foregone conclusion”.
The innocent references to Cassio as “suitor” by Desdemona in conjunction with Cassio’s light-hearted references to Desdemona as “divine Desdemona” and “a maid that paragons description and wild fame” further aid Iago in both winning Othello’s trust and eliminating it from his loved ones. Iago’s strong characterisation acts as a foil to the main protagonists in Othello and in conjunction with dramatic irony and bestial imagery serves in bringing out Othello’s tragic flaw of misplaced trust.
The increasing insecurity of Othello, arising from a constant need to assimilate into Venetian culture and fight the label of ‘Outsider’, weakens his trust in Desdemona and consequently allows for jealousy to take over. Othello, set in 15th century Venice, reflects the disparaging perspective of Italians to those of sub-Saharan ethnicity. Despite proving himself a “brave” and “valiant” warrior who is “more fair than black”, Othello is never referred to by name instead derogatorily labelled “the Moor”, “thicklips” and “black ram”, the use of animal imagery degrades Othello’s status and immediately sets him apart as ‘The Outsider’. Iago, in a bid to “serve his turn upon [Othello]”, “pour[s] pestilence” into Othello’s ear remarking that Desdemona rejected many “proposed matches of her own clime, complexion and degree” in choosing Othello.
The subtle reminders of Iago about his ethnicity cause Othello to turn against his gut instincts, “she had eyes and chose” and wrongly believe that Desdemona “ with Cassio hath the act of shame a thousand times committed”. The hyperbole accentuates Othello’s misapprehension in his insecure rage. His delusion furthermore acts as canvas through which first self-depreciation; “her name is now black and begrimed as my own face” then jealousy, “that green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” arises. The metaphor of a green-eyed monster is apt in foreshadowing and presenting to the responders the inner turmoil and eventual monstrous transformation Othello undergoes. Unable to satisfy the “lewd minx” whom Othello believes the young, Italian Cassio has “topp’d”, his jealousy drives him to want to “tear her all to piece”, reflecting the “monstrous birth” of a new Othello. Thus were it not for the seeds of insecurity already planted in Othello’s mind Othello’s jealousy, one of his tragic flaws, could have been avoided. It is the self-perpetuating nature of Insecurity that ultimately brings about Othello’s tragic flaw and subsequently his downfall.
Othello’s adherence to his warrior values and accepted gender role is the main catalyst for his last tragic flaw, hubris. Othello’s background as a “brave” and “valiant” soldier experienced through numerous “battles, sieges and dangers” instil in him values of courage, pride and insensitivity towards death. It is this background which also sees him more familiar with actions than words. At his return to Cyprus he “cannot speak enough of this content” but can act and promptly kisses her there, thus Othello is the foil to Iago, who’s cunning with words ignite the flame of Othello’s pride and unleashes “waked wrath”. Iago’s knowledge of the nature of gender is revealed through his quote, “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls” and it is through Iago’s intimate knowledge of the importance Othello places on gender roles in assisting him in his assimilation into Venetian society, that he is able to inspire “monstrous” hubris within Othello.
By insinuating Desdemona as a “whore” and “strumpet”, Iago is able to incite Othello into murdering Desdemona, “If I quench thee..I can again thy former light restore” thus bringing about catharsis and the downfall of Othello. Thus Othello’s last fatal flaw, hubris, a remnant of his soldier ethos causes him to believe that honour may only be restored through the correction of gender roles and in doing so brings about his downfall.
It can therefore be concluded that although the tragic flaw plays a large part in the inciting of the hero’s tragic flaws, it is the interaction between the context, characters and the hero’s actions which ultimately brings about his demise. In Othello the foil of Iago in conjunction with the innocent nuances of other characters, dramatic irony and Othello’s insecurity which gives rise to his fatal flaws of jealousy, misplaced trust and hubris and it is only through the interplay between elements that catharsis and agnorisus can occur.
Courtney from Study Moose
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