|Does Othello Fit The Tragic Hero Mould?|
Stanislavski as Othello (1896)
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?|
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?|
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)
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 pray on Othello’s jealousy, he prays 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?'