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Shakespeare’s “Othello” – A Tragic Hero

Life of Shakespeare

It is said that more facts are known about William Shakespeare than about any other playwright of his period than Ben Jonson. Mary Arden, the dramatist’s mother, was the daughter of a prominent landowner. In 1557, she married John Shakespeare, a glove-maker and merchant in various farm commodities. The birthday of William, his eldest son is unrecorded; however, the Stratford parish register shows that he was baptized on April 26, 1564. The attendance records of the Stratford grammar school show that he attended school and received substantial training in Latin.

On November 27, 1582, William married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. In 1592, the first reference to Shakespeare as an actor and playwright was available. Documents indicate that in 1598, he was a “principal comedian” and in 1603, he was a “principal tragedian”. Shakespeare’s literary activity seems to have been almost entirely devoted to the theater.

In an anthology by Francis Meres, many playwrights are mentioned but Shakespeare is the only name whose plays are listed. From his acting and playwrighting, Shakespeare seems to have made considerable money. He put it to work, making a lot of investments in Stratford real estate. On April 25, 1616, he was buried within the chancel of the church at Stratford.

Accomplishments as a Writer

“Thirty-seven plays, as well as some poems are held to constitute the Shakespeare canon. The dates of composition of most of his works are highly uncertain. There is no real proof, for example, that Othello is not as early as Romeo and Juliet, but intelligent guessing leads us to believe that Othello comes later.” (Bryant, 1964).

A brief summary of “Othello”

“Othello is one of the darkest and most passionate of the plays of William Shakespeare. It tells about the nature of love, friendship, and betrayal. Set in Venice and the exotic island of Cyprus, the play narrates the tale of Othello, the Moor, and Desdemona who dares to love him against the backdrop of war and the quest for power. Then Iago and his wife, Emilia enter their lives. Jealousy and the mad powers of the imagination together ally conflicting passions and cunning lies that destroy everyone ad everything in their wake.”(Studying Othello The Moor of Venice).

The story of the play, in a nutshell, goes thus: In the opening scene, the antagonist Iago complains that his Commander, has bypassed him for the promotion to Lieutenant for the handsome Cassio. Iago resolves to take vengeance. He asks his friend Roderigo to tell Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) that his daughter Desdemona has left to marry Othello of whom Brabantio disapproves. Brabantio confronts Othello and they take their case to the Duke.

The Duke has summoned Othello, assigning him to sail to Cyprus to stop a Turkish invasion there. The duke also permits Desdemona to travel with Othello. When they reach Cyprus, the threat is gone. Iago tells Roderigo to get Cassio drunk and draw him into a street fight. Iago has his revenge on Cassio when Othello strips Cassio of his rank for misbehavior.

Next, Iago encourages Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead with Othello on his behalf. Iago also hints to Othello that Cassio is Desdemona’s lover. Believing Iago and overcome with jealousy, Othello promotes the former and enlists his aid in killing both Cassio and Desdemona.

Iago plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s room and the latter gives it to Bianca, his mistress. Othello believes the handkerchief in Bianca’s possession is proof of his wife’s guilt. Iago convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio, but Cassio wounds Roderigo. When Iago stabs Cassio in the leg, the latter cries out. Othello hears Cassio’s cry thinks Iago has killed him. He returns home to kill Desdemona. Iago, finding the wounded Cassio, accuses Bianca of causing him the injury while he quietly kills Roderigo.

Othello reaches the sleeping Desdemona. He kisses her, wakes, and accuses her again. She protests that she loves him and is innocent but he smothers her instead. Before Desdemona dies, Emilia defends her, realizing that Iago is behind it all. Othello tries to kill Iago who kills Emilia and flees. Othello commits suicide and Iago is seized and taken away.

Reasons why “Othello” is one of Shakespeare’s outstanding tragedies

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s outstanding tragedies. “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” (Kaplan, 1958: 348). Here, by “language with pleasurable accessories” is meant – with rhythm and harmony or song superadded.

Aristotle’s concepts of tragedy present in “Othello” and examples

One of the most difficult concepts introduced in Aristotle Poetics is “catharsis”. Catharsis is most often defined as the “purging” of the emotions of pity and fear that occur when we watch a tragedy like Othello. What is involved in this purging is not clear, but what is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something common. The spectator recognizes himself/herself and his/her finiteness in the face of the power of fate. What happens, for example, to the character Othello has exemplary significance. To see that “this is how it is” is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions in which he/she, like everyone else lives.

“Othello” has perhaps the simplest plot of any of Shakespeare’s plays. There are no real sub-plots, only very brief comic interludes, and what happens from Act 2 to Act 5 takes place in a period of some thirty-six hours. In Othello, events happen in a shorter space of time than is usual with Shakespeare. The classical Greek writer Aristotle recommended that the plays should have what he called “unity of time, place and action. He argued that the action of a play should not take longer than twenty-four hours. Excluding the first act which serves as a prologue, Othello comes closer than most Shakespearean plays. The effect on the audience is to make the tragedy more intense. This brings the reader to an explanation of the term “hamartia”.

The Greek word that describes what many people refer to as the “tragic flaw” of the hero of Greek tragedy is ‘hamartia’. Hamartia has a complex meaning which includes “sin”, “error” and “missing the mark”. The “mistake” of the hero plays a significant role in the plot o the tragedy. The logic of the hero’s fall into misfortune is determined by the nature of his/her particular kind of hamartia. In Othello, hamartia is evident in the unreasonable jealousy of the character Othello.

Othello’s belief in Desdemona’s “adultery” is illogical since there is no occasion when it could have transpired. Desdemona and Cassio traveled to Cyprus on different ships. From that moment on, there is no time when the two were together. This fact does not only make Othello’s jealousy hard for the viewer to believe in; it shows it to be more insane. The villain Iago makes him believe what is impossible, yet Othello, maddened by his jealousy, cannot see it. Sometimes, the viewer would think that he is stupid to be swayed by the evil of Iago, but Iago is a villain and truly acts the part.

The reversal of the situation in the plot of a tragedy is the ‘peripeteia’. According to Aristotle, the change of fortune for the hero should be an event that occurs contrary to the audience’s expectations and that is therefore surprising; but that nevertheless seems a necessary outcome of the preceding actions.

In the last three acts, the plot moves almost with no interruption towards its tragic conclusion. At the start of Act 3, Othello is happily in love with Desdemona, yet his happiness is about to be ruined. Seeing Cassio with Desdemona, Iago hints at an adulterous relationship between them, although he knows he has no hard evidence. When Othello demands that Iago prove Desdemona’s guilt, Iago speaks to Bianca (Cassio’s mistress) in such a way that Othello thinks he is speaking about Desdemona. Othello then asks Iago to kill Cassio while Othello is to kill Desdemona.

Fully convinced of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, Othello verbally abuses his wife in front of others, who are shocked at the changes in the noble and powerful personage. At this point, it is important to describe the nature of Desdemona’s love for Othello. From beginning to end, she was faithful and true to her husband. Reviving after Othello’s attempt to finally kill her, she declares herself guiltless, but saying, as she dies, that Othello is innocent of her death. Her relationships with Cassio and Emilia were that of friendship alone and it was Emilia herself who defended Desdemona’s innocence, finding out that her evil husband Iago was behind the tragedy.

Anagnorisis, according to Aristotle is the recognition by the tragic hero of some truth about his/her identity or actions that accompany the reversal of the situation in the plot, the peripeteia. When Othello sees the truth in Emilia’s statement, he tries to kill Iago, but Iago kills Emilia and flees. Othello condemns himself and commits suicide. After Othello kills Desdemona, Emilia, discovering what he has done, tells him he is wrong in his suspicions of Desdemona. Emilia and the wounded Cassio can persuade Othello of the truth before they are killed.

The character of Othello delineated further

Despite his flaws and faulty decisions, mostly due to the machinations of Iago, Othello is almost fanatically loyal to the state he serves. When he is sure he has been betrayed, he makes a moving speech bidding farewell to his “occupation”. In his final speech, Othello speaks of his great loyalty to the Venetian state which he has disgraced by murdering his wife and of his terrible mistake, before stabbing himself as Iago is taken away to be tortured.

What a waste of lives! That of our hero, Othello, and those of the two virtuous women – Desdemona and Emilia. Despite the color of his skin, Othello was a very good soldier to make it to the top as a Commander. He had great beauty of speech which had an inspiring effect on his men and nobility of character. This point is made clear by Desdemona: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” They could have “lived happily ever after.” And Emilia – we can say that being such a moral person, she did not deserve the devil Iago as her husband.

Conclusion

“The practical and formal concerns that occupy Aristotle in the Poetics need to be understood about a larger concern with the psychological and social purpose of literature. Criticism, according to Aristotle, should not be the application of unexamined aesthetic principles, but should pay careful attention to the overall function of any feature of a work of art in its context within the work, and should never lose sight of the functions of the work of art in its social context.” (Forster, 1955). It is hoped that this analysis of Othello might help the reader to review and clarify his understanding of the terms, concepts, categories, and interrelationships that Aristotle introduces.

References

Bryant, J.R. , The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. 1964.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace,Jovanovich, 1955.

Gadamer, H. Truth and Method. New York: Weinsheimer and Marshall, 1995.

Kaplan, J.D., ed. The Pocket Aristotle. Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Studying Othello, the Moor of Venice. 2007. Web.