Othello as a Tragic Hero Essay

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Othello: Tragic Hero

Othello: The Aristotelian tragedy of the Moor of Venice

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought

Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe...(V.2).

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his "Poetics," a great tragedy provokes both pity and terror in the hearts of the viewer. "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions" (I.IV). Tragedy commands the viewer's attention because of its seriousness and the serious actions spawned as a consequence of what transpires. The elevated language and tone the playwright uses to treat a compelling subject provokes profound emotions in the hearts of viewers. In this, William Shakespeare's "Othello" is a perfect tragedy. It is of an extraordinary man whose tragically great nature is both the making of him, and his undoing.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Essay on Othello as a Tragic Hero Assignment

Othello is a great military hero who has distinguished himself in battle. Othello suffers the slings and arrows of prejudice, despite Othello's great service to Venice. However, although Othello has been able to steel his soul to racism, he is unable to see beyond the fraud perpetrated by Iago upon his psyche. To compound the tragedy, Othello's beloved "pearl" Desdemona gives up her family for the love of Othello, casting away the prejudice in which she has been reared. But because of Othello's gullibility because of his hypersensitivity to race and class (and age), due to his background, and his tendency as a career military officer to believe a fellow soldier like Iago more than his own wife, he is undone and kills the person who loves him most, perhaps the only woman who ever loved him.

The racism that has affected Othello's psyche is evident in Othello's society early on, when Iago raises Desdemona's father, Brabatino, to rally support against Othello's marriage surreptitiously. "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is topping your white ewe" (I.1). This shows the racism that Othello has had to overcome his entire life and makes 'the Moor' (as he is called) hypersensitive to insults. Soon afterwards, when confronting Othello because of his elopement with Desdemona, Brabatino does not merely say Desdemona should not want to marry a black man and therefore Othello bewitched her -- he uses the language of fear, not believing the girl could marry and "fall in love with what she fear'd to look on!" (I.3). Despite the fact he invited him into his home when he was merely a soldier, Brabatino cannot see Othello fully as a human being worthy of marrying his daughter. If Othello were white, and an equally great soldier, it is likely that Brabatino would be delighted to have his daughter marry Othello. The legacy of racism he has overcome is also evident in Othello's stories, with which he wooed Desdemona. They are stories of being sold into slavery as well as of fantastic sights, travels, and battles.

The ability to overcome racism means that Othello's psychological uniqueness is stressed, and his greatness which sets him apart from others and makes him desirable in a way that transcends race. His greatness is so overpowering that the leaders of Venice joke that they would be wooed by his stories, even if they are initially predisposed to believe Desdemona's father. "Othello...essentially large and grand, towering above his fellows, holding a volume of force which in repose ensures pre-eminence without an effort, and in commotion reminds us rather of the fury of the elements than of the tumult of common human passion" (Bradley 176).

Given this greatness of action and mind, why does Othello behave so foolishly and why is he so easily hoodwinked by Iago? Othello's tendency to believe Iago, an older and career military officer, more than the words of the innocent young Desdemona may thus be attributed to the fact that Othello is a military man who has known little of civilian life and who has used his military position to overcome the racism and difficult circumstances he has faced throughout his life. Othello distrusts women, and has great insecurities that his race and age may make him less than desirable to Desdemona, even though she denies this. Othello admits his limited experience in personal and feminine affairs early on in the play: "For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,/Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used / Their dearest action in the tented field" (I.3). Again, this manifests the classic paradox of tragedy, that what makes the tragic hero great also proves his undoing. Othello is unable to understand the subtle nature of love and emotional manipulation -- even to his dying breath he says he is not jealous. Yet because of his commendable, military service and valor, he is able to win Desdemona and win the respect of the white city leaders who allow him to marry her, despite the resistance of her father.

This paradox gives the tragedy of "Othello" its moral complexity, its instructive power, and its ability to inspire pity and terror. Most individuals have felt jealousy and suffered prejudice, in one form or another, but Othello's greatness makes him suffer on an epic scale in a way that instructs the viewer that even greatness does not make one immune to cruelty in love. "What spectacle can be more painful than that of this feeling turned into a tortured mixture of longing and loathing, the 'golden purity' of passion split by poison into fragments, the animal in man forcing itself into his consciousness in naked grossness, and he writhing before it but powerless to deny it entrance, gasping inarticulate images of pollution, and finding relief only in a bestial thirst for blood" (Bradley 178). As Aristotle says: "It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us" (2.XII). The tragic hero is extraordinary, not ordinary and virtuous, and he mirrors ordinary sufferings, but these sufferings are manifest in a much greater degree, with much greater consequences for everyone around him.

An ordinary man brought from prosperity to adversity might be Michael Cassio, a nice, decent young man brought into Iago's web who is 'undone' through no fault of his own. Rather, Othello's unique greatness as a general, his hypersensitivity to honor and fear of being judged harshly and cast aside because of his race causes him to mistrust Desdemona, even though such dignity kept him strong through war and slavery. Othello's lack of knowledge of marital life and greater age than Desdemona is due to the fact that he nobly and greatly served his nation at war, but also makes him unable to trust her more than Iago. He is afraid that his race and age makes him unworthy of her, so he distrusts her -- "she must change for youth,' sneers Iago to Rodrigo (I.3). Othello wins Desdemona because of his single-minded pursuit of military greatness and honor, and loses her because of the depth of his obsession with masculine honor.

Othello's background and his intertwining of his self-esteem with his military position also makes it difficult for him to engage in a dialogue Desdemona through any language other than violence -- Othello strikes his wife, rather than verbally confronts her with why he expects her of adultery with Cassio. If Othello were able to actually broach the subject with Desdemona and talk to her as an equal, then the tragedy might have a different ending. Instead, Desdemona is perpetually baffled by Othello's behavior, and Othello's perspective of Desdemona becomes so distorted it bears no relationship to her real actions in the play. Interestingly, Desdemona turns to Iago for assistance to explain Othello's behavior: "Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven,/I know not how I lost him" (4.2). While the main reason Shakespeare includes this scene of Desdemona pleading for assistance from Othello may be to create a sense of irony, as many people call Iago a friend even while it is obvious to the audience that Iago only desires to do malice, it is also possible to observe that Desdemona has seen the great trust Othello has placed in Iago as a fellow fighting man.

When Desdemona first tries to interfere in Othello's life as a soldier, namely when she begs him to reinstate Cassio to his former position, then things begin to unravel, illustrating how Othello is unable to balance his military and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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