The Play Othello has a Tragic Outcome, Discuss how Elements of the Genre of Tragedy are Seen in the Play

Traditional drama masks representing tragedy and comedy.
Traditional drama masks representing tragedy and comedy. | Source
The model of Aristotelian tragedy set the form of many of Shakespeares Tragedies
The model of Aristotelian tragedy set the form of many of Shakespeares Tragedies | Source
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Basilica di Santa Maria Della Salute - Venice, Italy  Altar of St. Anthony - Painting by Pietro Liberi
Basilica di Santa Maria Della Salute - Venice, Italy Altar of St. Anthony - Painting by Pietro Liberi | Source

This essay aims to assess and evidence how the Shakespeare play Othello does or does not present the elements of the genre of tragedy.

In essence the play Othello is a private tragedy tracing the destruction of a relatively noble man and his marriage. Typically ‘A Shakespearean tragedy is the polar opposite of a comedy; it "...exemplifies the sense that human beings are inevitably doomed through their own failures or errors, or even the ironic action of their virtues, or through the nature of fate, destiny, or the human condition to suffer, fail, and die...." In other words, it is a drama with an unhappy ending.’ (LifeTips, 2012)

Shakespearean tragedy is seen to follow the model of tragedy set by Aristotle; the plot of the ‘mind’ tragedies is always centred on just one main character, the protagonist. As per Aristotelian, and consequently Shakespearean, rules of tragedy a character must demonstrate a specific set of qualities in order to qualify as a tragic hero. Firstly the hero must be someone of high importance or fortune, such as a King, a Baron or in this case a General; Othello tells of his position when defending his decision to marry Desdemona to Iago ‘I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege’ (1.2.21-22) highlighting that he is of a royal bloodline in his homeland and was born of equal, if not greater status than she.

Even in this new country, where he and his kind appear to most as a barbarians, generally serving no other purpose than that of mercenary or slave he has overcome the hardships of his adventurous and catastrophic life, purchased his freedom and worked tirelessly in proving his worth to the Venetian senate, building a worthy reputation and the high ranking position of general in the Venetian military, thus achieving a position with a lot to lose; another of the imperative conditions of becoming Shakespearean tragic hero.

It is not just his status within the Venetian state that Othello treasures, the start of the play sees him marry Desdemona, a young Venetian aristocrat. The marriage is carried out in an underhand fashion, in the middle of the night without her family’s knowledge. The deceit is expressed implicitly to the audience through the use of pathetic fallacy; the darkness of the night represents the misdeeds, explicitly of Iago and Roderigo plotting their revenge and implicitly of Desdemona and Othello’s betrayal of Brabantio and of Venetian society. Inter-racial relationships were not accepted in Renaissance Venice.

Iago and Roderigo demonstrate the racial intolerance of the time in their conversation and actions in Act I Scenes I and II; describing Othello as bombastic and lascivious, Iago particularly focuses on presenting him as a demonic incubus through the use of animal imagery, ‘an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe.’ (1.1.89) he informs Brabantio, inciting hatred in him; turning the audience against Othello and contradicting the element of the good natured character of the tragic hero which is the essence of the genre of tragedy. Sullying Othello’s name in such a derogatory manner has a paradoxical effect, when Othello first appears on stage, unknowingly he defends and proves himself to the audience with his educated, poetic use of language demonstrated on paper in the style of blank verse, compared with Iago’s more ruthless and crude language which is presented in the form of prose. Through this Othello proves himself worthy of the position of general, of Desdemona and of the title of the tragic hero, Iago’s attempts of slander appear to elevate Othello’s position even higher.

Othello, in proving himself to be a worthy protagonist is also required to have a fatal flaw or, as Aristotle termed it, hubris, Greek for “insolence”; a character flaw such as jealousy, courage or pride, that balances out the heroes’ usually good natured character. The ‘hubris is not always considered to be a negative flaw in the character, rather it is just the impetus for the character’s tragic mistake, and the resulting circumstances.’ (Morrow, 2003-2012) Most notable of Othello’s flaws is that of jealousy, one of the main themes of the play; ‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.’ (3.3.168-169) giving physical form to the emotion of jealousy, the form of a monster suggests a terrifying all-consuming force with the capabilities of devouring all those afflicted/attacked by it.

The erosion of Othello’s faith in Desdemona is evident ‘Fetch me the handkerchief. My mind misgives.’ (3.4.85) fuels his ill-placed suspicion of Cassio and Desdemona’s “affair” alongside the more implicit jealousy of their youth. Othello focuses on Desdemona’s youth when quizzing her about the whereabouts of his mother’s embroidered handkerchief, ‘For here’s a young and sweating devil here’ (3.4.47) he addresses her hand, waiting for her to admit she no longer has the handkerchief demonstrating that at this point his feelings of love for her are still stronger than the monster that is taking hold of him. Reminiscing, Othello highlights, once again, the difference in age between himself and Desdemona, ‘A liberal hand! The hearts of old gave hands; / But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts.’ (3.4.42-43) Desdemona and Othello begin by loving each other harmoniously because of the differences they perceive in each other; masculinity and femininity, privileged and un-privileged backgrounds, youth and age. The differences which joined them together become distorted by Othello’s apparent insecurities and Iago who states in his soliloquy ‘I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear’ (2.3.323)

What is more apparent is the driving force behind the jealousy; Othello’s overwhelming love for Desdemona,

‘Twere now to be most happy; for I fear

My soul hath her content so absolute

that not another comfort like to this

Succeeds in unknown fate.’ (2.1.181-184)

clouds his judgement and leaves him open to the masked attack of Iago. Who vows to ‘set down the pegs that make this music’ (2.1.191) As cunning as Iago is Othello does not succumb to his poison easily, and can be seen throughout the play to fight the ‘green-eyed monster’, even as he is about to murder Desdemona he shows signs of fighting the jealousy. Iago’s hold, evidenced through the deterioration of Othello’s once beautifully poetic language, to an almost carbon copy of the ensign’s crude, vulgar tones displays just how successful Iago’s mind games have been. It is not just the lexis used that evidences Othello’s transformation, the format of his speech also morphs into that of prose, which is an indicator wrong-doing.

The purpose of the protagonist’s flaw hubris is to enable the audience to relate to him, in successfully achieving this, a state of catharsis can be reached; another vital aspect of the genre of tragedy. The release of emotion from the tragic hero provides the audience with a sense of completion. In his final

Othello is the embodiment of Tragedy, fulfilling all of the elements of the tragic genre as originally depicted by Aristotle.


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