Sunday, 8 April 2012

Is Othello a Tragic Hero?

Does Othello Fit The Tragic Hero Mould?
Stanislavski as Othello (1896)
Yes, Othello is a tragedy, so the eponymous Moor, by rights, should be a tragic hero. But does he really fit the Aristotelian bill?

Well, truth be told, very few of Shakespeare’s tragedies fit Aristotle’s view. For a start off, Aristotelian tragedies should conform to the three unities: action, place and time.

Show me a Shakespearean tragedy that takes place in the space of twenty-four hours, in one location and with absolutely no subplot, and…that’s right, there ain’t one.

But Aristotle didn’t end there, he had a fairly firm notion of what characteristics a tragic hero should have, too.

What is a Traditional Tragic Hero?

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he goes into great detail about what he looks for in a tragic hero, and he discusses the most effective way to affect an audience. Basically, what it all boils down to is this:
  • A tragic hero must be a person of high status; an individual that an audience should look up to and admire
  • A tragic hero must be, essentially, ‘good’
  • A tragic hero cannot have committed any evil or catastrophic deed with intent
  • A tragic hero must have a fatal weakness, and it is this flaw that causes him to ‘accidentally’ commit the aforementioned deed


Othello is a Tragic Hero

So, let’s see how Othello measures up to that view.

How is Othello a tragic hero?
Well, the first point is a rather contentious one. On the face of it, a black man in an extremely racist period of history can hardly be seen as high status.

However, I think Shakespeare does, in fact, fulfil Aristotle’s first guideline, because Othello is a man of great honour, bravery and pride.

He has overcome many, but not all, of the racist opinions of Venice and made a great success of himself. Brabantio may not consider him to be ‘good enough’ for his daughter, but I think we, as an audience, feel an instant camaraderie with Othello.

Despite his lack of status and unenviable position of being a Moor in racist Venice, we do admire and respect him.

Next up, Othello is quite clearly a good guy.

The only possible exception being Iago’s claim that he has had an affair with his wife, Emilia. However, this is unsubstantiated and, given our source, I think we have to take it with a pinch of salt. Therefore, for the sake of argument, we can agree that Othello is essentially ‘good’.

But this is where things start to stray from the well-worn tragic hero path.

Othello is Not a Tragic Hero

Why is Othello not a tragic hero?
A tragic hero’s fatal flaw is called hamartia. Now, there is some argument over what exactly Aristotle meant by the use of the word, but it’s literal meaning is an injury (or harm) committed in ignorance.

In other words, it's a misjudgement or accident on the part of the perpetrator.

A good example would be Hamlet’s murder of Polonius or Oedipus killing his father (although this is a grey area; Oedipus knew he was killing someone, even if he didn’t know it was his father).

In any event, Othello’s smothering of Desdemona cannot be described as an act of ignorance or misjudgement - unless, of course, you say his misjudgement is that he thought he was killing an unfaithful hussy when, in actual fact, he was killing his faithful and loyal wife.

But I think a jury would have a hard time swallowing that one.

And then, of course, there’s the question of whether Othello really has a fatal flaw at all. At least, one in the traditional tragic sense.


What is Othello’s Tragic Flaw?

What Flaw Does Iago Exploit? Lawrence Fishbourne and
Kenneth Branagh in Othello (1995)
Some people claim that Othello’s flaw is jealousy.

I disagree, because, to me, jealousy is not an emotion or state of being that can exist on its own. It requires other things to feed it.

In Othello’s case, and most other cases of jealousy, this is insecurity.

Iago does not prey on Othello’s jealousy, he preys on his insecurity - the sense that he is not ‘good enough’ and that Desdemona will, therefore, eventually find a more suitable mate.

But then I’m inclined to dig a little deeper. Insecurity, on the whole, is not something we are born with - especially not if we are great, big, strapping generals in the Venetian army. So, why is Othello insecure? Well, my guess would be the systematic racism he has had to endure.

Is he an inherently jealous and cynical man? Well, judging by his implicit trust of Iago, the answer seems to be ‘no’.

Subsequently, I am of the opinion that, unlike many Aristotelian tragic heroes, Othello is not in possession of an intrinsic flaw, which causes his downfall. Instead, he is a victim of the endemic racism of his era; racism that has driven him to feel insecure about the permanence of his position and his well-deserved, but unusually good fortune.

So, is Othello really a tragic hero? Well, in my opinion, yes….and no. What do you think?

For more on Othello, take a look at 'An Overview of Othello's Character' and 'Is Desdemona a Helpless Victim or One Of Shakespeare's Spunky Gals?'


  1. Great article! Love this play and the fact that, whether or not Othello fits Aristotle's idea of the tragic hero, can still be debated. But is Othello the greatest lover ever written???

    1. Hello Vintuous, thanks very much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post.

      Is Othello the greatest lover ever written? Wow, that's a question. For me, he's certainly the greatest lover that Shakespeare ever wrote. Romeo doesn't come close. The battle for greatest lover ever written is pretty stiff, though. That said, I think I would certainly put Othello in the top three with Orpheus and Heathcliff. What are your feelings on it?

      Thanks again!

  2. I have to agree: Romeo is indeed a bit wet in comparison to "The Moor."

    Get literary lovers? Heathcliff, of course; Edmond Dantes; Captain Corelli; Hagrid. Ok, so maybe not the last one...

    1. Hahaha! : ) "Wet" is a fabulous way of describing Romeo. He's, indeed, wet compared with almost any other Shakespearean lover.

      Count of Monte Cristo and Corelli are also good choices, they've got to be in the top ten literary lovers!

  3. Im writting a paper on othello. we have to analyze othello, with two secondary sources. I'm so excited

    1. Hello, Stephana.

      I'm glad to hear you're enjoying studying Othello. I wish you the very best of luck with the paper, and thanks for the comment!

    2. same here for my english class fun right?

    3. Thank you so much! it was really useful.
      Our professor asked us to do an assignment on Othello and one of the questions was "is Othello really a tragic hero? discuss" and i'm sure your article is gonna be really useful, thanks again :)

    4. Glad to be of help, Hatem. Good luck with the assignment.

  4. thank u really it is very useful .... please can i source it please need ur help i need this article pleaseee

    1. Hello, Fadi. Yes, of course, as long as it's cited, you may use it as a source. Glad it's helpful to you.

    2. thank u dear ... its very kind of u :) good job

  5. I read the drama three years ago , and i totally forgot it .Now i saw your paper and by reading it every thing was very much clear to me. Wow that's the real crux.

    1. Thanks. Glad it's helped refresh your memory of Othello, and made more sense of the play.

  6. I'm a bit confused. Is Othello really a tragic hero? Some of the critics tells that it does not achieved Aristotle's theory of tragic hero. I badly need it for my critic paper. i need your help.

    1. Hello there. Have you read the post above? That sums up the case for and against Othello as a tragic hero. From there, it is really up to you to determine how you feel about him. That's one of the beauties of literature: if you can justify an opinion, it can never be wrong. Good luck with your paper.

  7. It's "prey" not "pray." Otherwise, nicely done.

  8. Disagree, I believe Othello's demise is due to his reification and application of Venetian social constructs in his own life.

    1. Interesting. And, actually, not a million miles away from my point. Venetian social constructs are racist after all. Still problematic in terms of Aristotelian model, though. If it's all the fault of society, what's his flaw? A desire to 'fit in' to and be accepted by that world perhaps?

  9. Hi Mr Markham,

    I read on your profile that you explain issues about Shakespeare--I wasn't sure how to contact you so I hope you see this message.

    Anyway, I'd like to know whether or not you can consider Othello not to be a racial alterity but a crucible of subjective norms in modernity?

    1. Hello, JP.

      Completely unimportant, but it's actually Ms Markham (no offence taken). And, I should really put my email address somewhere more prominent - but, should you happen to need it again, it's:

      As for your question, it's a very interesting one. And, I suppose, the answer is: a bit of both. In a way, you can't really have one without the other. There's no doubt that Shakespeare is 'rocking the boat' and forcing his audience to question the norm by having a character who is "other", and giving him hero status.

      But he's probably also aware that an "exotic-looking" character will pull in the crowds - he is, first and foremost, in the business of getting bums on seats after all! Same can be said for Shylock, although his intentions there are a little less cut-and-dry thanks to the uncomfortably happy ending.

      Is Othello just an exotic character for the sake of an exotic character? No, I don't think so. Shakespeare was never afraid to shake things up, even when it put him in danger of crossing Elizabeth, so I don't doubt he was making a point here. How effective he thought he'd been in forging social change is something we'll have to guess at.

      Thanks so much for your question, and I hope that helps a bit.
      Best wishes.

  10. I am currently doing a paper on this also, as I see quite a lot of people who have read this article are, though I was wondering if there was any Shakespeare critics which you agree or disagree with when it comes to this subject, like F.R Levis or A.C Bradley?

    1. Hi there! Thanks for getting in touch.

      I think Levis makes fine and perfectly valid points. I don't know that I agree with them all particularly. I do agree that Othello can't be called a 'blameless hero'. On the other hand, I don't think I'd go as far as he does, and think of Iago as merely 'subordinate and ancillary' to the tragedy. I don't think he's the great source of external evil, but Levis, for my money anyway, plays Iago's role down too much.

      As I mention above, Iago preys on something that's already present in Othello - so would all have ended sweetly for Othello and Desdemona if it hadn't been for Iago? Who knows? It's quite possible that something else would have happened to ruin their romance and marriage. But to suggest that Iago is ancillary and so, for instance, had no more of a hand in the outcome than the witches do in Macbeth (who set the wheels in motion, certainly, but don't put anything in Macbeth's head that's not already there), is perhaps not giving Iago enough credit. He knows exactly what he's doing, and gets a real kick out of it. So, I'd say, no Othello isn't blameless, but Iago twists something inside Othello in a way that can't be brushed off as a sort of inconsequential act.

      Just my opinions, of course, but hope their helpful.

    2. Just pointing out it's "they're" not "their." Otherwise, great opinion. I've gained valuable information about the play, which will help me finish writing my essay. Thanks a lot.

    3. Indeed, it is! Thanks for correcting that for me.