Othello: A Tragic Hero's Downfall

Categories: Drama

William Shakespeare's "Othello" is often hailed as one of the finest tragedies in the realm of literature. It masterfully narrates the descent of a once-happy man into the depths of despair. At the heart of this tragic narrative are the fatal flaws of its titular character, Othello – his overwhelming jealousy and unchecked pride. Contrary to the belief that Othello's downfall is primarily a result of the manipulation by the villainous Iago, this essay argues that Othello's own fatal flaws are the chief drivers of his tragic fate.

This perspective is supported by the analysis presented in Professor Crawford's article titled "Othello as a Tragic Hero."

The Tragic Hero and Aristotle's Criteria

To comprehend Othello's role as a tragic hero, it is imperative to consider the characteristics outlined by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero is not a flawless individual; rather, they possess inherent imperfections. These imperfections, often referred to as a character's "fatal flaw" or "hamartia," constitute the weaknesses that ultimately lead to the hero's downfall.

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Moreover, for a literary work to be classified as a tragedy, the protagonist must be a person of elevated status within society, and their trajectory must involve a fall from power and happiness.

Othello embodies these criteria remarkably well. At the commencement of the play, Othello is introduced as a figure of great power and high societal standing. During Act I, Scene III, the Duke and several senators of Venice acknowledge Othello's valor with the words, "Here comes Barbantio and the valiant Moor." This statement explicitly highlights the high esteem in which Othello is held by the senators.

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He is renowned as a heroic military leader, brimming with pride and courage. However, as the narrative unfolds, Othello's character undergoes a gradual transformation, shifting from an unblemished leader to a remorseless murderer, driven to the brink by the cunning lies of "honest Iago."

Othello's Responsibility for His Downfall

It is essential to emphasize that Othello's descent into tragedy is primarily a result of his own actions rather than external manipulation by Iago. Throughout the play, Iago never explicitly coerces Othello into specific courses of action; instead, he artfully insinuates the necessity of certain actions. The decisions that Othello ultimately makes are entirely within his control. For instance, when Iago hints at the need to address Desdemona's alleged infidelity, it is Othello who rushes to the conclusion that Desdemona must die. Similarly, although Iago suggests that he will take care of Cassio, it is Othello who leaps to the assumption that Cassio must be killed.

Othello's self-isolation from everyone except Iago creates an environment where Iago's manipulations can thrive. This does not, however, imply that the play adheres to the concept of a "drama of intrigue," where external events overwhelmingly manipulate the main character, leaving them with no agency. On the contrary, Othello's actions and decisions are the principal drivers of the unfolding tragedy, firmly establishing "Othello" as a "drama of character."

An illustration of a "drama of intrigue" can be found in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." In this tragedy, Romeo and Juliet are depicted as having no control over the longstanding feuds between their families. They are powerless to prevent the external events that ultimately lead to their tragic end, becoming victims of their parents' deep-seated animosities.

Conversely, Othello and Desdemona had agency and control over their circumstances. Othello could have easily engaged in open communication with Desdemona, thereby thwarting Iago's sinister plans from the outset. Regrettably, Othello's propensity for overtrust, especially towards those around him, facilitated Iago's manipulation. Othello's decisions and actions were pivotal in steering the narrative towards its tragic conclusion.

Literary Merit and Purposeful Storytelling

The intricate interplay of events within "Othello," where each element seems to fit seamlessly into the overarching narrative, underscores the literary merit of the play. Shakespeare meticulously crafted the plot to create a sense of purpose and inevitability. For instance, the scene where Cassio's lover, Bianca, unknowingly displays Desdemona's handkerchief while conversing with Cassio, all while Othello observes from a distance, demonstrates the meticulous planning behind the narrative. Every event within the play serves a purpose, contributing to the story of Othello's tragic downfall.

Shakespeare's deliberate construction of events in "Othello" adds depth and complexity to the narrative. The seemingly coincidental occurrences are, in fact, purposeful and serve to drive the plot forward. This meticulous storytelling enhances the play's literary merit and contributes to its enduring relevance.


In conclusion, "Othello" aligns with Aristotle's criteria for a tragedy, as it portrays the downfall of a character of high societal standing, Othello, due to his fatal flaws of jealousy and pride. Importantly, Othello's tragic fate is a result of his own actions and decisions, making him the quintessential tragic hero of the play. It adheres to the classification of a "drama of character," where the character's own flaws lead to their undoing. Contrary to a "drama of intrigue," where external events dominate the character's destiny, Othello retains agency throughout the narrative.

Moreover, the purposeful construction of events in "Othello" underscores its literary merit. Shakespeare's deliberate storytelling weaves a tapestry of interconnected events, enhancing the play's depth and complexity. "Othello" remains a compelling tragedy, not only for its exploration of human flaws but also for its skillful narrative construction, ensuring its enduring significance in the world of literature.

Updated: Nov 02, 2023
Cite this page

Othello: A Tragic Hero's Downfall. (2016, May 10). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/othello-a-tragic-hero-essay

Othello: A Tragic Hero's Downfall essay
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