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Othello: The Tragic Hero

By hollyjane96 Jul 29, 2013 1587 Words
Through extensive critical study of William Shakespeare’s play Othello, taking into account the countless productions of the play over the years, which reaffirms its status as an enduring valued text, it becomes distinctly evident that part of its ability to continually engage readers is drawn from its treatment of themes universal to the human experience , such as verisimilitude and jealousy. Society’s constant struggle with what is real and what is not in our modern world, coupled with our everlasting battle with human emotions such as jealousy, give the play textual integrity, ensuring that the play is reputable of critical study. This can be specifically realised through the close analysis of Act 3 Scene 3, Act 1 Scene 1, and Scene 3 in which Shakespeare utilises his art to replicate life and verisimilitude to confront the audience’s perception of reality and jealousy. Close examination of these pivotal scenes in regards to the key thematic concerns not only accentuates the interpretation of the play as an Aristotelian tragedy, but also draws attention to why Othello continues to engage and enthral contemporary audiences. Othello demonstrates the difficulty in being certain of what we perceive, by observing the actions of others or by introspection. By placing importance of the traits such as trust and honesty, Othello is blinded by Iago’s manipulation of reality. The ease with which Iago manipulates Othello’s perception of reality is accentuated through the use of dramatic irony in “My lord you know I love you.” The use of dramatic irony emphasises that Iago’s appearance as a loving, loyal servant to Othello is nowhere near the reality of his Machiavellian nature. Iago’s blatant abuse of Othello’s values is also illustrated in A3S3 through Iago’s declarative statement “Men should be what they seem, or those that be not, would they might seem none.” The internal rhyme in this statement places emphasis on the juxtaposition of appearance (seem) and reality (be). We can see Iago’s manipulation of the importance Othello places on traits such as honesty and trust. The manipulation of such traits would have been seen as dishonourable to Elizabethan audiences, thus Shakespeare again paints Iago as the true villain in the play. In the context of our critical study, close examination of pivotal scenes highlights the ways in which the play conforms to the conventions of an Aristotelian tragedy, in that Othello is painted as the tragic hero, with a flaw that is played upon and ultimately leads to his downfall. This interpretation of the play allows for an informed understanding of the play as a whole, and remains worthy of critical study due to its treatment of themes universal to the human experience. Furthermore, the distortion of the values of truth and honesty create opportunities for manipulation by those with Machiavellian nature, such as Iago, who distorts his own nature in order to appear honest and loyal to Othello. The tragic hero in an Aristotelian tragedy often makes a fatal error in judgement that leads to his downfall, which in Othello’s case, would be accepting Iago’s perception of reality and allowing it to cloud his judgement. Iago is referred to as “honest Iago” on numerous occasions, and Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony reveals Iago’s untrustworthy character, and reinforces how the appearance of Iago is in no way related to his true nature. This is further illustrated in Iago’s statement “I am not what I am” A1S1. This deception is the essence of the play’s dramatic irony, as Othello will always refer to Iago as “honest Iago”, which highlights how reality can be manipulated to one’s advantage. Oliver Parker, director of Othello, a 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic play, utilizes symbolism to highlight the breaking of the “honest Iago” façade at the beginning of the film, where we see Iago convince Roderigo not to kill himself and to pay their way to Cyprus. Parker shows the character of Iago placing three chess pieces on a table: a black king Othello, a white queen Desdemona, and a white knight Cassio, and appears behind them as the chess master, using them as pawns in his game of destruction and revenge. This reiterates to the audience that the other characters are not aware of his Machiavellian nature. The theme of verisimilitude is explored by Oliver Parker in the film adaptation through the symbolism of the chess pieces, inferring that Iago is the master in the game, using his pawns to achieve his own goals. This directly aligns to the exploration of verisimilitude in Shakespeare’s play, through the use of dramatic irony, the exploration of which challenges the audience’s perception of reality, and in Elizabethan times, would have been viewed as different and confrontational. Through close analysis of Parker’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, as well as the play, in regards to the key theme of verisimilitude, highlights the interpretation of the play as an Aristotelian tragedy in that we see Othello make his tragic error and allow Iago to cloud his judgement with his lies. The concern of what is real and what is not in today’s confusing society is a theme that applies universally to the human experience, which is why Shakespeare’s play remains worthy of critical study. Alternatively, the all-consuming nature of jealousy impacts upon the character of individuals. In Elizabethan times, jealousy was analogous to wickedness, a sin, which, to Shakespeare’s Christian audiences, the presence of which would have been disgraceful. In light of this, the impact of jealousy upon an individual is illustrated in A3S3 through the use of the metaphor in “The Moor already changes with my poison….with a little act upon the blood will burn like the mines of sulphur.” In this phrase Iago compares his deception to that of a poisonous substance, which he feeds to Othello and waits whilst it erodes away Othello’s rational mind, leading up to his inevitable tragic downfall. Shakespeare’s use of colour imagery to portray jealousy as the “green eyed monster” in Iago’s warning “Beware my lord of jealousy; it is the green eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on” in combination with the monster motif, vividly depicts the destructive nature of jealousy on the character of individuals. Othello’s tragic downfall, the murders and deceit in the play are all products of Iago’s jealousy, and we can see from Othello’s tragic end how jealousy can impact an individual’s character. In the context of our critical study, my understanding of the play has been informed by the ways in which the play conforms to the conventions of an Aristotelian tragedy, in that the hero falls from fortune to misery due to a fatal flaw, which in Othello’s case, is jealousy. Jealousy is an emotion that is common to all human beings, transcending time, age, race etc. By highlighting this, Shakespeare has ensured his play’s textual integrity, as well as ensuring that it will continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s treatment of the destructive nature of jealousy highlights the fragility of human relationships. In both the play and Parker’s film, we can observe the ease by which emotions are swayed and relationships can falter, for example, the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, which Othello staked his life upon, was destroyed by one man’s lie. We can also observe that the terse, fragile relationship between Iago and Othello is hanging on Othello’s good opinion of Iago, and it is Iago’s manipulation of this opinion that allows him to feed Othello’s jealousy. This is illustrated in “I hate the Moor…he’s done my office…he holds me well, the better shall my purpose work on him.” A1S3. Through the use of emotive language, Shakespeare is able to communicate how jealousy motivates Iago to manipulate his relationship with Othello in order to exact his plot of revenge. Conversely, Oliver Parker employs the setting of the armoury to highlight the destructive nature of jealousy in his interpretation of Shakespeare’s temptation scene. By placing Othello and Iago in the armoury, Parker represents Iago’s intentions of priming Othello into a dangerous weapon to use to serve his own purpose, which further demonstrates the destructive nature of jealousy. The fragility of human relationships, as we can see, impacts greatly from jealousy’s caustic nature. Conclusively, in the context of our critical study, the conventions of an Aristotelian tragedy that we see in the film help to inform my understanding of the play, as such; an Aristotelian tragedy. No matter what era of time is acting as an audience, universal themes such as jealousy always have been and will always be an experience common to all humans, which is why Shakespeare’s play enthralled audiences in Elizabethan times, and continues to do so today, reaffirming the play’s worthiness of critical study. In conclusion, through extensive critical study of William Shakespeare’s play Othello, and Oliver Parker’s 1995 film adaptation of the play, it has become clearly evident that the universal themes of jealousy and verisimilitude have been portrayed through various literary and film techniques to highlight the interpretation of the play as an Aristotelian tragedy. The tragic hero, Othello is lead to his downfall by a fatal flaw/s, being his jealousy, and his difficulties in being certain of what we perceive. Close analysis of A3S3, A1 S1 and S3, have not only informed our understanding of the play as an Aristotelian tragedy, but also highlighted that, through the treatment of the universal themes of jealousy and verisimilitude, Othello retains its textual integrity and continues to apply to, and resonate with contemporary audiences today.

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