Shakespeare is recognized worldwide as play write and poet. He came from a time and era when the stage was at its height producing a variety of stage plays across genera’s including comedies, tragedies, and histories. Many of these plays include additional themes or plural genera’s such as the comic-tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and the Merchant of Venice. While these plays entail the dramatic thrill and the down fall of a tragedy, they include other elements which limit the tragic theme. However, Shakespeare’s play, Othello, provides a unique quality to his lists of plays. Not only is it the only play with an African character but it represents the classic tragedy. The audience is left suspended by manipulation and deceit as the characters succumb to death or fall victim to malice intent. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle gave the classic tragedy a distinguishable definition and execution of this art form. Many of these qualities can be observed in Othello, qualifying it as a representation of Aristotle’s influence on literature. Thus, by examining Aristotle’s design of the classic tragedy, one can observe the artistic quality of Othello that brings out a clear understanding of the tragic hero.
Aristotle defines tragedy as, “the imitation of an action that is serious and also has moving magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, where with to accomplish a catharsis of emotions”, (Aristotle 1). These are unique qualities which can be found in Othello. The story begins with the main character and protagonist Othello, an African general for the Venice army. Othello has just married his wife Desdemona. Throughout the play Othello is challenged by Iago who works under him. Iago provides the drama; he represents the antagonist who is destined to ruin Othello and his marriage. Nothing good becomes of this play. By the end of this tragedy, both Othello and Desdemona are dead, along with Roderigo and Emilia. Iago remains to live on, with no assumed justice for his interference. No one succeeds in this play but the antagonist. The drama that is revealed throughout stirs the audience and their emotional senses. As indicated in Aristotle’s definition, the drama remains “serious”. There is no plot regarding the love and romance shared between Othello and Desdemona. Neither can one observe any comedy nor history involved in this play. As a result, the play is a full and complete tragedy with the wrongdoers evil intentions satisfied. “Tragedy for Shakespeare is the genre of uncompensated suffering and as he writes in that mode the successive plays reveal an even more profound formal acknowledgement of their desolating controlling logic” (Kastan 9).
There are various elements included in a tragedy, making it both successful and enjoyable. From the dramatic plot to the audaciousness of characters that create the show, every element is necessary to construct the classic tragedy. This can be observed through action as seen in Shakespeare’s Othello. “A catharsis is a purging or cleanings of the emotions- a release of tensions… in a tragedy this is often a moment of revelation”, (Aristotle 2). As in most tragic works this occurs at the end of the play. It isn’t until Act V, the last Act, that Othello learns of Iago’s malicious and murderous endeavors. In this scene the audience sees Othello react in an emotion besides jealousy or defense. Here, Othello first acts in rage as he attempts to harm Iago, then he weeps with pain from killing his innocent wife, after this he kills himself from guilt and grief. The tensions that are released through the last Act give the play the “moving magnitude” that Aristotle mentions, as well as the “arousing of pity and fear”. While the tragedy unfolds through a series of climactic scenes, the audience does not feel sorry for Othello. This does not happen until the very end when he officially succumbs to Iago’s malice. “A larger scheme of justice ultimately prevails: Othello denounces his terrible act, clears Desdemona of any wrong, rediscovers his love for her even though she cannot be restored to him as a living wife, and punishes his own crime” (Bevington 62).
Othello further confirms Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero. Not only does Othello represent a hero as a general of an army, he is the main character of the play and his only fault is his deception by Iago. This makes Othello human, displaying his faults despite his overall good nature. “The best type of hero; exist between the extremes… a person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into misfortune through vice and depravity but rather, one who succumbs through some miscalculation”, (Brown). Although Othello miscalculated his relationship to Iago, this does not cause him to be the tragic hero. Instead, his murder of his wife Desdemona proves to be the true miscalculation. If he had not killed her, he could have begged forgiveness and possibly saved his marriage creating the happily-ever-after. As a tragedy however, Othello is unable fix what he has done wrong. Death is complete with no turning back. “In a tragedy, the events or episodes in the play should lead the audiences to feel sorry for the main character-the tragic hero” (Aristotle 1). At the end these are the feelings conveyed toward Othello. He is not only pitied, instead the audience understands his frustrations and pain. Even in death, Othello is revered for his human qualities falling short only by the corruptive influence of others.
Before killing himself Othello states, “then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well, of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like a base Indian, threw a pearl away” (Shakespeare V, ii 341-354). It proves the guilt he feels- faulting himself, and not Iago- for Desdemona’s death. This speech reaffirms his good nature. He is a man who has a falling out, scathed by his misfortunate events. He maintains his friendship with Iago, the villain, throughout the play. He knows of no ill-will or injustice from Iago portrayed on his part. Had Iago verbalized his feelings of rejection, when Othello did not give him the Lieutenant position or approve of Othello’s marriage, Othello may have tried to mend their relationship. Instead, Iago maintained his deceit through cunning and conniving. Through guilt, Othello recognizes the flaws within himself, which is characteristic of Aristotle’s tragic hero. “Othello’s culpability need not destroy an audience’s sympathy: bad things that happen to virtuous people produce only melodrama. Bad things that happened to flawed people because their flaws produce tragedy” (Bent 360). The flaws present in Othello are his trustworthiness of Iago and jealousy regarding Desdemona. Everyone has flaws, however many are unable to admit to this. Admitting his jealousy in his final speech, he draws compassion and sympathy from the audience making him the epitome of the tragic hero.
“Shakespeare’s tragedies witness to the horror and mystery of human suffering, pain, and loss remain the central tragic facts” (Kastan 9). The events that keep the audience on their toes are tragic. From the beginning, the concept of the play is based on lies and deceit. The first lie occurs when Iago rushes back to Othello’s aid, so that Othello will not think he revealed the marriage to Desdemona’s father. Thus, from the beginning of the story, Othello is forced to defend himself against Iago and his antics. Yet, the only point that releases the audience from the constant motion of tragedy and deceit is the love between Othello and Desdemona. The audience only observes these moments in short events. In Act I scene ii, Othello and Desdemona must prove their love before the court. Othello is forced to persuade the court to honor his marriage. When he first hears of this he says, “”But that I love the gentle Desdemona, I would not my unhoused free condition put into circumscription and confine for the sea’s worth” (Shakespeare I, ii 25-28). However, these snippets of love are far and few between as the lies of Iago continue. This ultimately affects the cast of characters from Iago’s wife to Roderigo, Desdemona, and Cassio the lieutenant. Within these short lines of love and devotion, the reader observes the kind man manipulated by his misconstrued counterparts. The short encounters of love mixed in with the prolonged events of manipulation, the audience cannot help but observe Othello as the tragic hero that he represents.
“Othello is a play that might well illustrate Shakespeare’s understanding of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, if we had any reason to think that Shakespeare cared about Aristotle and the critical tradition that descended from him”, (Bevington 62). Regardless if Shakespeare was a fan or studied the work of Aristotle, he was clearly influenced by him. Aristotle became renowned during the Renaissance era when Roman and Greek literature was popular throughout Europe. As a result, his theory regarding the classic tragedy became a structured format for writers and scholars. It not only provided the meaning of a tragic drama but the elements that it presents, putting importance on the language, movement, and spectacle. While many find themselves suspended by death, manipulation, and malicious wit, unbeknownst to them they have been struck by Aristotle’s original design of the classic tragedy. Although Othello is noble and relatable by the audience he manages to fall out through a string of events. Othello is thus flawed, unlike the epic hero. The flaw turns his heroism into a tragedy as insisted by Aristotle’s classic model. These actions and flaws drive the play. It is an ideal observed in life as many face problems daily. As such it allows others to reflect on the tragic hero within themselves. Othello was jealous and possibly gullible. He made the mistake of believing his enemy a friend and let his pride take over when he killed Desdemona in spite. This characteristic is what Aristotle calls Hamartia, “it might be better translated as tragic error. Caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or action, missing the mark and disaster results” (Brown).
Aristotle, . “Aristotle’s Idea About Tragedy.” From the Poetics. CUIP University of Chicago, 27 February 2014. Web. 28 Feb 2014. <http://cuip.uchicago.edu/~ldernbach/msw/xhgkaristrag.pdf>.
Bent, Geoffrey. “Three Green-Eyed Monsters: Acting as Applied Criticism in Shakespeare’s “Othello”. Antioch Review. 56.3 (1998): 358-373. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://wikidshakespeare.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/64757838/Three Green Eyed Monsters.pdf>.
Bevington, David. “Tragedy in Shakespeare’s career.” The cambridge companion to Shakespearean tragedy (2002): 50-68. Retrieved from: http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/sites/core/files/text/Bevington%20–%20Tragedy%20in%20Shakespeare’s%20Career.pdf
Brown, Larry. “Aristotle on Greek Tragedy.” Larry Brown Lipscomb Education. Homestead, n.d. Web. 27 Feb 2014. <http://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/aristotle_tragedy.html>.
Kastan, D. S. (2007) “A rarity most beloved”: Shakespeare and the Idea of Tragedy, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, Volume 1: The Tragedies (eds R. Dutton and J. E. Howard), Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. doi: 10.1002/9780470996539.ch2