William Shakespeare is the master of tragic plays, among which Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear are central. In this case, a tragedy narrates a plot about a good person losing their true sense of self due to mistakes in judgment or a character defect in unusual circumstances. In contrast to other famous tragedies, Shakespeare’s characters suffer from pride in the Christian sense of the word: the characters understand their insignificance before God but try to become him anyway. In a way, Shakespeare’s characters are endowed with despair because of their inadequacy. They are incapable of becoming themselves and want to become someone else, not necessarily the best version. Othello’s play is about anxiety and lack of peace of mind as well as the fact that other actions may have saved people’s lives. The central tragic character is Othello, whose nobility is combined with an unprotected heart and a vulnerable personality despite his strength.
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Traits Othello is Endowed with as a Tragic Character
In analyzing Othello’s behavior, one must first identify the traits of his character that drove him to tragedy. Initially, the character is presented as a noble and well-respected person. Furthermore, he appears as a strong leader that has the patience to communicate appropriately with impatient and rude people. This description is critical in accentuating Othello’s role as the tragic character, as his good nature is then contrasted to the mistake that he makes. Othello’s mistake, which causes his downfall and mental breakdown, is jealousy. His soul and inner fear vulnerability shatter Othello’s nobility, so he listens to Iago and easily believes that his wife is cheating on him. Shakespeare writes, “Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter.” (Shakespeare, 2017, 210) Othello admits his stupidity, lack of wisdom, and blind faith. From his mistake, the character became an irrationally angry man with no previous self-control. His imperfection lies in solid love, confusion of feeling, and recklessness. The realization of weakness comes too late, and Othello sees no other path but death.
A tragic character trait also lies in Othello’s complete arrogance. He is proud and gullible, so through a series of manipulations Iago convinces him that he is right. Othello has true faith in people’s intentions despite his negative character traits and genuinely assumes that all people are honest until proven otherwise. Iago is not powerful enough; he is proud and spiteful, but his cunning is enough to turn Othello’s trust against himself. His conviction of people’s honesty becomes the perfect excuse, and Desdemona’s planted handkerchief becomes the stumbling block. Othello trusts his beliefs, and since nothing is above his judgment of the world, he is willing to pay for it with both his own and his wife’s lives.
Othello becomes enraged by his jealousy and feelings of betrayed trust. Unfortunately, he draws the wrong conclusions and believes too much in his ideals to resist Iago’s intrigues. Othello sees it as his mission to become the hero: by killing the unfaithful Desdemona, he will warn other men of her deceptions and restore justice. The purpose of Desdemona’s murder is to eliminate lies and rid the world of danger, but for Othello himself, the world is no longer beautiful, for the woman he tenderly loved has betrayed him (Shakespeare, 2017). The straightforward hero steps from the noble path of life into the chaos of individual passions, unable to make sense of his feelings and find the truth.
The peripeteia is linked to the moment of recognition of the character’s reality: Othello is not alienated from the world, despite his shortcomings. There is a nobility and faith in him, an inner strength. At the same time, Othello is a vivid example of a vulnerable Renaissance personality who, because of his ethnic position, has been unable to develop a humanistic ideal. The tragedy is the fall of courage due to the baseness of the villains, who have cultivated a dark passion within themselves. The hero’s morality is revealed in a moment of epiphany: Emilia reveals the truth, and Othello is struck by the fact that Desdemona was truly sincere with him. Despite his high status, Othello feels love for the first time so strongly and unrecognizably in society. Then his cruelty brings him down: he killed an innocent man because he found himself as lowly as the bourgeoisie.
Nemesis, the hero’s inescapable fate, is expressed in the act of Othello’s suicide. Despite the realization of his action, Othello does not interpret its consequences as a lesson. He questions Iago’s motives and stupidity but does not seek an answer, defying fate instead. The moral high ground is not expressed, and his future remains unfavorable. Othello calls himself a circumcised dog and stabs himself, accepting the curse of luck (Shakespeare, 2017). However, there is no realization of his wrongdoing, and the hero finds himself unable to discern the origins of his jealousy. Despite the feelings that arose between Desdemona and Othello, their marriage was not successful due to the evident differences in their background. The attempt to resist traditional patterns was to be considered a failure from the start, and while naïve Desdemona had taken advantage of such torments, Othello was blind. They are alike, but his low social status burdens Othello’s personality. He is an outsider to Venice, and society in the person of Iago shows this in all its glory.
The moment of catharsis is close to the tragedy’s turning point, peripeteia; it manifests itself as a sincere realization resulting from a mental shock or suffering experienced. Such a moment is Emilia’s story, in the course of which Othello learns the truth about Desdemona’s innocence. The audience develops a sense of pity or regret for the characters’ story. Far more critical is the sense of fear established by the reality of the events, which has a bitter aftertaste considering Othello’s actions. In the moment of catharsis, Othello stands at the most extreme point of his tragedy’s consequences and feels remorse. The hero’s tragedy is in his character and the paying for actions against his own beliefs and the world. Shakespeare, as the realist, shows the reader how outside influences easily affect good people and they fail convinced of personal pride and power. Othello is evidently revealed as a tragic hero because of his many unique traits rather than one fatal flaw. Othello is not a typical character, which adds tragedy to his fate.
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Thus, Othello is endowed with the typical features of the tragic hero: hamartia, arrogance, peripeteia, critical discovery, nemesis. Othello has status at the expense of his virtue and a relatively inner solid moral core. Through a combination of many good and bad traits, he is consistent and quickly identifies with the audience. His imperfection leads him to a tragic end, a moment of catharsis marked by punishment.
The Tragic Deed: Othello’s Vulnerability
In that way, the traits that the typical tragic heroes are usually endowed with have been discussed. Othello combines the classic Aristotelian principles, orienting them towards the past: the heyday of the bourgeoisie and the absence of a tolerant attitude toward outsiders. To fully understand the manifestation of these traits, it is necessary to consider a specific example of the hero’s tragedy. The central point of the story is the villainy of Iago, who wins Othello’s trust and leads him to disaster.
Moreover, it is worth giving a brief characterization of Iago to ensure that he is not a tragic character. Iago is not described as a man of high status who feels jealous of Othello. His nature is boorish, plebeian, lowly, and in some places pathetic. He is humiliated because the happiness of Othello and Desdemona strongly pressures him to commit his wrongdoing. Iago is cunning and clever; he is a skilled manipulator who himself does not know the true motives for his actions. He acts with a pure intention of revenge, wanting to do evil because other people will experience suffering. There is little good in Iago, he is blind and ignorant, but at the same time, he can find a weak spot in everyone. Iago finds it in Othello: vulnerability, arrogance, a moral burden because of his background.
Othello brings the good news: the war is over, peace is coming, and now everyone can have kindness be brought into their lives. His life is centered on conviction and trust in people, despite his high status. Iago has served him faithfully, and so he easily believes that Cassio, Desdemona’s supposed lover, is doing dishonorable things behind his back. Cassio, who seeks Desdemona’s help, inadvertently fuels Othello’s jealousy. Iago skillfully utilizes these doubts for his manipulative plan, and a discouraged Othello asks for proof. As he searches for clues, his wife’s lost handkerchief becomes decisive by coincidence. Moreover, the conversation that Iago sets up further inflames Othello’s hatred and jealousy, and the latter, unable to contain the raging sea of feelings, goes to Desdemona.
Othello shows the flaws of his soul in a public quarrel with Desdemona: there is no more virtue; his arrogance and callousness are in full view. In this way, the incident portrays him even more as an outsider who does not belong in Venice. Desdemona continues to search for kindness in him, but Othello has already passed the peak of his tragedy: now it remains to wait for the nemesis. It comes at once: Emilia runs into the bedchamber and informs him of Iago’s villainy, and the oncoming critical insight overtakes Othello. Reaching the pinnacle of his tragic destiny, Othello sees only one outcome – death.
Othello’s tragic act consists of crime against his own convictions: he trusted quickly, failed to verify the evidence of his wife’s guilt, and put blind faith above reasoning. The tragedy lies even in the way Desdemona is murdered– the agonizing strangulation reflects the depth of Othello’s flaws. Othello is endowed with negative traits that might not have arisen had he not been in a difficult situation. It reveals all of the central tragic character principles according to Aristotle, focusing on the moral aspect. Othello’s tragedy is exposed through his imperfection and inability to confront unusual circumstances. In this case, the mistake he made undoubtedly caused his own downfall, emphasizing the role of such terrible faults in determining the tragic character. Thus, his figure is an example of a mortal personality’s weakness and pain features being incorporated into a classical tragedy.
Shakespeare, William. 2017. Othello, edited by Dr. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon & Schuster.