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Aristotle’s definition of ‘tragedy’ requires the audience to be profoundly moved by the course of events. Discuss your response to the play by the end of the final scene. Explain the extent to which you fit Aristotle’s definition. (Timed essay)
Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy which requires the audience to be profoundly moved by the course of events can be applied to Othello, a play that closely follows the tragic plot as outlined by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the tragic character in a tragedy is a good person, not all good or bad, who begins in a rank of high degree and importance and then experiences a downfall due to a tragic flaw, something of which the protagonist Othello displays. The downfall of the central character (in this case Othello) is a reason which causes the reader to feel great pity thus making it a tragedy.
At the beginning of the play Othello is presented as a courageous military war hero with the noble rank of a general. The audience witness him assert with pride in Act One: ‘I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege, and my demerits / May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune / As this that I have reached’ (I.ii.24-27). These lines indicate that Othello’s courageous military acts give him a social status comparable to royalty. It is also evidenced that others view Othello as a man of high esteem when a senator remarks in reference to Othello, “Here comes Brabantio and the valiant Moor” (I.iii.55). The audience, despite Iago and Rodrigo’s derogatory comments regarding Othello feel there is something honourable and honest about his character. The audience feel Othello is a benevolent military noble whose love with his young wife, Desdemona is moving.
Although Othello is presented as men of high degree, he is not perfect; possessing traits that lessen his character. He may be valiant and courageous, yet he is also proud and jealous. In addition, Shakespeare describes him as a Moor, or black man, a trait not associated with perfection during the time of the play. When speaking to the Duke and Brabantio, Othello states, “Rude am I in speech . . .” (Othello, I.iii.96). Here, Othello shows that his character is not without fault; he himself believes he cannot speak in the eloquent manner of the royals. Iago the villainous character immediately uncovers Othello’s flaw, ultimately that of naiveté. Although Othello is usually a very even-tempered man, as can be seen when he refuses to let Iago persuade him to get angry at Roderigo, Iago still manages to perpetuate the tragedy of the play by provoking the hamartia (tragic flaw) of the protagonist. Near the beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s clever demonstration of dramatic irony allows the reader to realize Othello’s tragic flaw in the fact that he hands his full trust over to a man who is Janus-faced and dishonest. “…my ancient; a man he is of honesty and trust.
To this conveyance I assign my wife”. The irony from this line lies in Othello’s misconception of his ensign, Iago, who is already plotting against him for his own means. After witnessing Iago’s conspiracy with Roderigo at the ruination of Othello in the previous act, the reader immediately sees Iago’s villainess, however in innocence; Othello is blinded to it and by it, but the audience is not without sympathy since they realise his flaw is not actually a defect in itself, but rather an excess of a good characteristic. Aristotle claimed the tragic character did not pass to bad fortune by ‘vice or wickedness’ but by ‘some large scale piece of ignorance’ in the case of Othello it is his naivety, that flaws his judgement which is his ;ignorance’.
In addition Othello possess a great pride, he avows, “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul /Shall manifest me rightly” (I.ii.36-37); with these lines, showing he believes no harm can come to him because of his status. His pride leads him to believe that he is invincible and because Othello thinks highly of himself, he believes others will do the same; his open and trusting nature allows Iago to take advantage of him. In the case of Othello, his pride and naivety becomes lethal when paired with the villainy of Iago.
Although the change of Othello from the virtuous protagonist to a reckless wife murderer seems somewhat immediate and may to some show how weak Othello is to fall so easily in Iago’s schemes one must be aware of the maliciousness and crafty nature of Iago. Throughout the play we see Iago do everything he can to heighten the effects of Othello’s tragic flaw and cause it to work against him. The most conniving aspect of Iago’s plots are recurrently seen throughout the play, when he subtly betters his own image while destroying that of others. An example of this can be seen in act II, scene II, while Iago is questioned by Othello concerning the reason for the “barbarous brawl.” “Touch me not so near.
I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth / than it should do offence to Michael Cassio; Yet I persuade myself to speak the truth / Shall nothing wrong him.’ With this, Iago gives the illusion of being reluctant to speak ill of a friend although we know that it was in his plan all along to set Cassio up so that he would be stripped of his position. This simple, but brilliant tactic elevates his credibility and fools the Othello as well as Montano and Roderigo. In this sense the weakness in Othello’s tragic character is not so profound especially in the light other characters are susceptible to Iago’s manipulation.
As the play progresses, and Iago taints the mind of Othello more and more effectively, Othello becomes increasingly stricken with unnatural suspicion and detrimental emotion which cause him to lash out and become weak in every possible way. The latter is precisely the goal of Iago. As a result of Othello’s trusting nature, Iago’s ‘monstrous’ ideas are allowed to penetrate into his usually unsuspecting mind and warp his thoughts and actions throughout the course of the play. The audience realise as a result of the purity and truth in the love between Othello and Desdemona, Othello is stricken with grief when it is suggested that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. He refuses to believe it at first, but by entrusting dishonest Iago to the task of finding the truth inevitably buries him deeper in deceptions.
At a turning point in the play where he is tortured with disbelief and images in his mind, the usually collected Othello is seen weakening both physically and emotionally at the mercy of Iago. The audience realises had Othello not been so in love with Desdemona, had his marriage resembled that of Emila and Iago’s he may not have been so enraged with the knowledge of her disloyalty as to end up killing her and himself in the end. Othello’s goodness as portrayed through his great love for Desdemona renders him a tragic hero in that although he is a well-intentioned virtuous individual, he can also be persuaded into murdering even that which is dearest to him.
In Act IV, Scene I, we see Othello fall into a trance after falling victim once more to another one of Iago’s malicious lies concerning the details of the imaginary affair between Desdemona and Cassio. “Lie on her? …Zounds! …Noses, ears, and lips? Is’t possible? -Confess? -Handkerchief-O devil!” The marked lethargy uncharacteristic of good-natured Othello followed by his physical collapse shows his final capture by Iago and the point where the tragic hero becomes irreversibly cast into a state transgression. Although in the play, Othello is characterised as a dignified general he still represents humanity, for he is clearly not a god and is not ‘pre-imminent in moral values’ as Aristotle defined a tragic hero to be.
It is in this fact that Shakespeare successfully fulfils the final obligation in the creation of tragedy; to captivate and impassion the audience in response to the actions of the tragic hero. Prior to the implantation of Iago’s venom in his mind, we see Othello as a man worthy of respect. However, as the play unfolds and Othello becomes defenceless to his jealousy that steal his rationale and provokes him into violence, we begin to hate Othello as we witness the evil in his acts. The reader is especially affected by the contrast in his nature when he strikes his loving wife in public as a result of the passion of his misconceptions.
Finally after the unjust and horrific murder of Desdemona, when Othello comes to realize the horror of his doing, the audience reaches a catharsis, in which we are struck with feelings of pity and admiration for the antagonist. Othello, completely ripped apart by the discovery of Iago’s plot then damns himself to hell out of guilt for his actions, “O cursed, cursed slave! Whip me, ye devils, from the possession of the heavenly sight! Blow me about the winds! roast me in sulphur! …O Desdemona, Desdemona Dead! O! O! O!” From the images of hell in Othello’s speech, it is clear that the hero has reached his ultimate doom and the effects of his hamartia have taken their ultimate toll.
The audience finds solace, however, in knowing that the protagonist does conquer the part of himself that has brought about the tragedy (anagnoresis) although it is much too late. We are particularly moved in Othello’s ironic speech when he discloses before his suicide, “Speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well, of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in an extreme….” It is in this that Othello comes to the realization of the tragic flaw of his naiveté and lack of wisdom that has led to the dreadful situation. However, as characteristic of tragedy, the hero has reached this realization too late, and he dies leaving the reader saddened by the realm of events forming the tragedy.
The reason the audience is so affected the tragedy in Othello lies partly in the fact Othello’s flaws are his human characteristics. It is compelling and devastating for the audience the excess of a virtue such as trust could have such a terrible effect on a man of such esteem.