Othello as Tragic Hero

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In what ways does Shakespeare present Othello as a typical tragic hero?

Professedly, Shakespeare appears to present Othello as tragic hero, exposing his tragic flaw, which consequently leads to his downfall, through his use of language, structure and form. It could be argued ‘Othello’ appears to conform to Aristotle’s principles of tragedy, of the noble protagonist who undergoes perpetia and endures suffering, resulting in his ultimate downfall due to harmatia, which he eventually realises, providing catharsis for the audience. However, upon further study, such devices may be interpreted to provide a different perception of the protagonist, as more of an atypical victim, exposed to the harsh reality of the society he longs to fit into, rather than an typical hero.

Shakespeare uses a highly concentrated and distinctive structure in ‘Othello’, dividing it into five scenes, in addition to keeping the three unities, another aspect of Aristotle’s theory. There are no subplots, the majority of the action occurs in Cyprus, and time on stage is fairly close to “real” time. Such a structure allows the audience to develop a more personal understanding of events, as they are in closer proximity to the action, and are not distracted by subplots. Not only does this heighten the ominous mood of the tragic events that are to come, it makes the prospect of Othello’s downfall increasingly terrifying.

Immediately, Shakespeare presents Othello as an outsider in the play, referring to him as the “moor”. In Venetian society, such a term referred to second rate citizens of Muslim descent, and Iago’s use of the word suggests he feels that Othello is not worthy of being called his own name. The audience begin to develop a dislike for him, particularly when Iago awakes Brabantio to tell him how “an old black ram is tupping [his] white ewe”. He continues explaining to him how the “Barbary horse” has married his daughter. Such extensive use of animal imagery, and the stark contrast between black and white, not only in racial terms but in terms of good and evil, emphasise the bitterness and tension Shakespeare is attempting to create between Iago and Othello, and also highlights many of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audiences’ racist attitudes. Shakespeare often wrote for the royal court where such poignant reflections of the society they lived in were likely to make lasting impressions on them. However, as the play progresses, Othello is in fact revealed as a noble and valiant character, who is valued by many, who is satisfied with his life, exclaiming: “I cannot speak of this content”. Even when confronted by Brabantio, he appears to be level headed saying, “Let him do his spite: my services which I have done the signory shall out-tongue his complaints”, showing he is controlled and confident. Whilst continually being damned by Branbantio as having “enchanted her”, he remains composed and polite, addressing the senate as “very noble and approved good masters”. Shakespeare also presents Othello as an honest character, as he openly admits “it is most true; true that I have married her”. He neither yells nor screams, but explains in a manner that captivates the audience, and draws them to listen, through his use of eloquent verse. Nevertheless, it could be argued that these speeches made by Othello, although beautifully crafted and entrancing, seem to have an air of arrogance to them, and his “unvarnished tale”, comes across as well rehearsed. He feels he should “promulgate” his achievements as a general and believes strongly that his “parts..titles...and..perfect soul, should manifest [him] rightly”. In the eyes of the Duke, that is just what they do, making him believe Othello is “far more fair than black”. Leavis agrees with this stance, claiming Othello is “overly aware of his nobility”; also he suggests that Othello’s speech in which he explains that, but for the love of Desdemona, he would never give up the freedom to roam “for the sea’s...
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