Representations of the Tragic Hero in Othello and Macbeth
One of the engaging elements of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is that they are not monstrosities of virtue but rather people who are simultaneously accessible and elusive; they are made up of qualities and characteristics that we find within ourselves and other characters within the play while exhibiting an intensity that places them beyond our grasp. We come to realize that we have never known such a person (20). This quality of the tragedies and the heroic characters renders them accessible and sympathetic in a context of grandeur (the lives of powerful military leaders, kings and princes) that would otherwise be foreign to many of us. As a result, we can begin to understand and even in some cases empathize with the struggles and misfortunes that lead to the calamity, suffering and eventual death of the tragic hero that characterizes this genre.
One such character is Othello. Unlike the demise of Macbeth that develops out of treasonous ambition, the tragedy of Othello is born out of a myriad of sources that makes the story of his reversal of fortune much more heart wrenching and tragic than that of Macbeth’s. In many aspects, the tragedies of Macbeth and Othello are very similar. They each open amidst political strife, setting a dark tone for the play. This is especially true of Macbeth. Both feature as central characters, enormously powerful generals whose accomplishments, bravery, and stature elicit a sense of power and dignity while evoking awe. Their bravery and commitment in the service of their respective countries brings them to the attention their superiors and garners them the respect and admiration of their subordinates and superiors alike. In the case of Othello, this sense of accomplishment is heightened as a result of Othello’s race and his status as a foreigner. He is also a very romantic character, whose hard fought victories and adventures in exotic countries make him a curious and compelling character to Brabantio and Desdemona.
Othello and Macbeth are first and foremost soldiers who are shaped and deeply influenced by their experiences in combat. The first mention of Macbeth is given during a rendering of the battle situation by the bloody captain who describes how Macbeth killed Macdonwald by slicing him open from “the nave to th’chops (1.2.22).” Othello’scourage is seen when Barbantio confronts him about the “theft” of his daughter and Othello confidently replies by suggesting to Brabantio that he would accompany him to talk with the Duke about the matter. These experiences on the battleground and their lives as warriors, in their molding of Othello and Macbeth’s personality and character,contribute to their downfall.
One factor that heightens our sense of sympathy for Othello and Macbeth unlike Hamlet and King Lear, is that they are both influenced and goaded into actions that precipitate their fall by other people. As tragic figures, both Macbeth and Othello have the quintessential tragic flaw, “a marked one-sidedness, a predisposition in some particular direction; a total incapacity, in certain circumstances, of resisting the force which draws in this direction (20).” Considering the tendency of the tragic flaw to be overpowering under the right conditions, other external influences would have brought the power of these flaws to eventually manifest themselves. In the case of Othello and Macbeth, this movement to demise is hastened by Iago and Lady Macbeth; they both capitalize on the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of Macbeth and Othello from which actions issue that beget other actions leading to the tragic conclusion.
When Macbeth returns to Inverness, the casualness and immediacy with which the Macbeths begin discussing the murder of Duncan, suggests as critics have asserted, that they may have talked of something like the plot to kill Duncan, before. When Lady Macbeth replies to Macbeth upon learning that Duncan is due to...
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