A Man’s Character Is His Fate.’ to What Extent Is Othello’s Own Character the Cause of His Downfall?

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‘A man’s character is his fate.’ To what extent is Othello’s own character the cause of his downfall? According to Aristotle’s Poetics, a classical tragic hero should be renowned and prosperous, superior in some specific way, so that the reversal of fortunes or downfall, stirs up feelings within the audience of a greater intensity. Such disastrous results are often triggered by the mistake of the tragic hero due to their tragic flaw or hamartia, which is often linked to hubris or excessive pride. In Shakespeare’s Othello, as a General of the Venetian army, Othello meets these criteria, as his mistake is to trust ‘honest Iago’ and convince himself that revenge upon Desdemona will lead to honour and success. In fact, as with most tragic heroes, it is this decision which leads to his destruction. However, it is important to consider whether Othello’s ruin was the inevitable result of the defects in his character or whether there were other forces, outside of his control, which led him to his doom. If it is solely Othello’s hamartia which leads to his downfall, then it must be related to the change in his perception of Desdemona. In Act 1, when warned by Brabantio that Desdemona may also deceive Othello, Othello retorts passionately: ‘My life upon her faith!’ The exclamation here demonstrates the dedication and trust that Othello feels towards his new wife, but by Act 3, Othello is already beginning to doubt her: ‘By the world,/ I think my wife by honest, and I think she is not’ (3.3.389). Shakespeare’s use of cosmic imagery when Othello swears illustrates the magnitude of Othello’s resentment at his own hesitation, as his judgement is usually impulsive, as in Aleppo, (5.2.361) when he knew immediately to ‘smote him thus’, as he was certain of his enemy, but in this case, doubt has impaired his vision and he is unsure who to trust: his new wife or ‘honest Iago’. Othello’s peripeteia occurs when he decides to trust Iago; however, the audience are surprised at this decision, as it is unclear what has changed his perception of Desdemona so that he condemns her as ‘that cunning whore of Venice’ (4.2.88). Some critics are of the opinion that it is jealousy that has clouded his judgement thus, and argue that this must be his hamartia. However, it is equally possible that Shakespeare has given Othello the ‘fitness of character’ that Aristotle stated was an important feature of a tragic hero, as his true hamartia may be his value of the honour-shame culture which existed among European Elizabethan warriors, and is linked to the hubris common in tragic heroes. It can be argued that the shame induced by the idea of his wife’s unfaithfulness results in his downfall, which Shakespeare expresses through animalistic imagery: ‘I had rather be a toad/ And live upon the vapour of a dungeon/ Than keep a corner in the thing I love/ For others’ uses’. Therefore, Desdemona’s murder becomes an act of sacrificial love: ‘A murder which I thought a sacrifice’ (5.2.64) as he feels that ‘else she’ll betray more men.’ Perhaps it is for this reason that, in his death scene, Othello says: ‘For naught I did in hate, but all in honour’ (5.2.301) and calls himself ‘An honourable murderer’. Either way, possible flaws like these suggest that Othello’s downfall was his own doing as such traits may have driven him to trust Iago and murder Desdemona, actions which in his anagnorisis led to extreme suffering, and caused him to commit suicide. Alternatively, Othello’s impulsive and passionate nature could also have contributed to his downfall, as this may have been his hamartia. This would fit the necessary ‘consistency’ outlined by Aristotle, as the same passion and instantaneous response can be found in his reaction to Brabantio in scene 1 as in the later scenes, in his immediate reaction to Iago’s suggestive statements. At first Othello responds calmly: ‘Why dost thou ask?’But the more evasive Iago is of such questions, the more it riles Othello and...
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