Between 1599 and 1608 Shakespeare wrote a series of plays containing protagonists that were undeniably both ‘heroic’ and ‘tragic’. In Othello, like his three other renowned tragedies – Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear -Shakespeare, whether intentionally or not, casts Othello’s good side almost solely in the first half of the play and goes on to portray his bad side in the second. Othello’s status as a tragic hero must be measured taking into account the events surrounding his eventual demise inclusive of Iago’s betrayal and his consequential actions.
Many critics have praised either Hamlet or King Lear as his greatest tragedy while simultaneously recognising Othello as a better plot, with better characters and making for a more exciting play. As will emerge, there are reasons for this reluctance to recognize Othello as Shakespeare’s supreme masterpiece in tragedy, and also reasons on the other side. . Primarily the terms ‘heroic’ and ‘tragic’, and hence ‘tragic hero’, can hold a number of definitions.
A hero is defined by the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terminology’ as the central male character, displaying courage or noble qualities, with whom the audience sympathises.
Indeed, whether or not we feel sympathy towards Othello is a crucial factor in determining his rank within the tragic heroes. This involves weighing up whether the sympathy felt towards Othello due to the ‘honest Iago’s’ evil scheming overrides the hatred towards him when his unreasonable actions have fatal consequences on his supposedly ‘loved and blessed’ Desdemona. Aristotle saw the iconic ‘tragic hero’ as having a ‘fatal flaw’ which would act as an error in their character resulting in their downfall.
Othello certainly falls into this category and it cannot be argued that his actions in the latter stages of the play would have been mimicked had Iago not had his ‘wicked way’. One of Othello’s most famous traits is an air of mystery that makes it difficult to feel sure about his personality and motives. Is he confident, or secretly insecure? Does he love Desdemona’s soul, or merely wish to possess her sexually? Is he a devout Christian, or is his Christianity only skin-deep? Firstly, I am going to consider the case that Othello is not heroic but in fact a pretentious barbarian who is exposed all to easily for his true self.
As Iago’s poison enters his mind he seems to change more completely than other tragic heroes – a trait exposing his false pretence. As a direct result of this we cannot believe him when he speaks about himself anymore than we trust Iago’s self-revelations. In Othello, as in Hamlet, many kinds of uncertainty coexist and interact and in Shakespearean tragedy this uncertainty is of the essence. Most obviously Othello’s inheroic actions fall in the final acts of the play where his initial image of noble, well-spoken, gentleman are shattered by his actions which manage to speak louder than his similarly anti-heroic words.
To echo Othello’s change in feelings, Shakespeare changes his language as well from the once flowing, poetic verse to “Pish! Noses, ears and lips. Is’t possible? Confess! Handkerchief! O Devil! ” (4. 1. 42-3). Following this disjointed dialogue he falls into a trance. Although it is implied that Othello feels this as necessary evil patches of his language suggest otherwise: “I will chop her into messes! Cuckold me! “. He goes on to call his ‘treasured’ Desdemona ‘Devil’ (4. 1. 239) and goes on to strike her in a public display of violence – ironic considering that Cassio was previously demoted for such an act.
It could be argued that Shakespeare has no real intent to make Othello a ‘tragic hero’ as he does not give him the sufficient soliloquy or monologue with the audience that Iago revels in. Through these passages he is able to tell the story from both aspects and thereby appear foreign to his actions as he reflects on them logically and with no bias. He is also blessed with endearing traits such as a quick wit; “if she be black and thereto have a wit, she’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit”.
It is also recognized that he may be based on the traditional ‘clever slave of classical comedy’ and modelled on Lorenzo of ‘The Spanish Tragedy’. After all, if the audience are indeed to believe Iago’s words completely then his actions are not without cause if Othello has ‘cuckolded’ him. “It is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets he’s done my office. ” It is not only the scale of transformation that shocks both the audience and the other characters but the speed at which it occurs as well. “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! And when I love thee not chaos is come again” (3. 3. 91-3).
This is a blunt declaration of his love for her and yet less than a hundred lines later he states, “And on the proof there is no more but this: Away at once with love or jealousy! ” showing his willingness to give up his feelings immediately. How one interprets the words of Desdemona is another key factor in deciding on her husband’s heroism. Before Desdemona has even had a chance to defend herself in her confrontation Othello almost forces her into admittance of this mystery crime. However, she remains innocent, unlike Othello remains noble, which is true to the rest of the play and states, “Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed? . I am now going to weigh this against the case that Othello is a character displaying all the classic traits of a tragic hero.
Linguistically he is eloquent in style; “Rude am I in my speech and little blessed with the soft phrase of speech” (1. 3. 82-3). This also implies his modest side although he generally acts as an epic hero as opposed to a Christian leader and this too is reflected in his highly courageous and endearingly care-free speech: “he that stir next, to carve for his own rage, holds his soul light: he dies upon his motion” (2. . 169-170). His peers also recognize him as heroic; Montano calls him ‘brave Othello’ (2. 1. 37) and a ‘worthy governor’ (2. 1. 30). This case relies on the assumption of Iago’s completely evil nature and indeed he is generally scene as one of Shakespeare’s most despicable characters. He has a multitude of motives.
Resentment and jealously of Cassio’s promotion: he wishes ‘to get his place’- (1. 3. 391-2) and once demoted says, ‘how do you now, lieutenant? ‘ – (4. 1. 104). Hatred of Othello: ‘doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards’ (2. 1. 95) and when Iago goes on to taunt Othello with degrading sexual images of Desdemona (3. 3. 205) is this hatred not perfectly visible? These accusations have little just cause and it is Othello we empathise with. Othello deals gracefully with the crude racism that was common for the time and concurrently treats his peers with equality and respect and is the model gentlemen when his wife is concerned.
In the very first act there is a distinct theme of racism as Iago and Roderigo let their true feelings be known as they discuss Othello: “And I – God bless the mark, His moorship’s ancient! This is clearly sarcastic with the deliberate intent of mocking he of the ‘thick lips’ and Roderigo responds, “By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman”. He also displays his naivety, which could be perceived as a fatal flaw, as he insists on calling Iago ‘honest ‘ persistently throughout the play. In conclusion I believe there to no definite answer although in a pure comparison to Shakespeare’s other four great tragedies I feel Othello to be the ‘least tragic’. One of the crucial factors in deciding if Othello is to be determined a tragic hero is how you interpret Iago and Othello’s actions.
If you believe that Iago forces Othello to his downfall as opposed to just pushing him towards it then this qualifies him as heroic as it is merely his trust and jealousy which result in his demise. Personally I feel Iago’s character lies between pure evil and a comical narrator. The most obvious factor that makes this question near impossible to answer is that it effectively deals with two characters – one in the first half of the play and one in the second. Needless to say it is the Othello of the first half that inspires the belief of heroic status and it is the Othello of the second half that does not.
👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!
Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.get help with your assignment