Monday, July 4, 2011

Othello as a tragic hero

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Othello Research Paper

In literature, one of the most commonly identified roles is the tragic hero. Whether it is in classic Elizabethan works or in modern twentieth century works, the traits of the tragic hero abound. How did this role become a force in literature? The credit goes to none other than Shakespeare and his classic work Othello. Othello embodies the very essence of what has come to be known as the tragic hero.

To often is the tragic hero looked upon as a stereotype. The bulging, brawny, gutsy action star has been glamorized by the media for decades. The role is often tainted with an onslaught of women, sex, drugs and violence. However, the tragic hero in its quintessence was formulated from layers of emotional duress and heroic traits.

Othello carries all the traits that have come to be identified with the aforementioned tragic hero. He has despicable rivals, respect from those around him, an important position, a romantic interest, strength and courage, and most importantly a tragic flaw. These traits are not only resounding themes throughout the play, but they also have set a precedent in literature for many years to come.

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In order for the heroism a tragic hero embodies to be expressed, he must have an adversarial situation to challenge him. In order to have an adversarial situation, he must have an adversary or several adversaries. In order to stress the good qualities of the hero, these adversaries must be as despicable and as deceitful as possible. Othello is certainly not lacking in this area.

One of his pathetic enemies is Rodrigo. Rodrigo embodies many opposite traits of Othello’s. Instead of being courageous, he is cowardly. Instead of taking care of his own business, he gets someone else to do it for him. This man is Iago. He is definitely cast in a contrasting light to our hero, Othello (Douthat n. pag.).

Iago, Othello’s more obvious villain also embodies many contrasts to Othello, but in a more caustic nature. Iago is cowardly because he goes behind Othello’s back and tricks him. Iago also holds much resentment toward Othello, being turned down for a military position by him. Iago also turns one of Othello’s most trusted friends, Cassio, against him and in the end brings about Othello’s demise (Douthat n. pag.).

Not only are Othello’s adversaries despicable, but they are also bigoted. Since Othello is black, he is the subject of much racism. The terms directed toward him include “Moor” (I.i.57), “thick-lips” (I.i.66), “an old black ram” (I.i.88), and “a Barbary horse” (I.i.11). These all occur in Act I, setting a mood and tone for the remainder of the play. This shows that Othello not only has despicable adversaries, but also adversarial situations to overcome (Douthat n. pag.).

At the other end of the spectrum are character’s who respect Othello. This is required of the tragic hero in that if he is not respected, he does not fit into the definition of a “hero.” Since the classification of tragic hero is even more specific, he would not fit into the mold. Just like his enemies are despicable, his allies are reliable, loyal and generally agreeable individuals.

First and foremost of Othello’s allies is the Duke. The Duke is obviously an important figure, due to his rank and importance in the community in which this play takes place. His respect is worth much more than that of another individual. The Duke in many ways represents the people, and thus respect from the Duke equates to respect from the people (Douthat n. pag.).

The next most important character who helps round out Othello’s character as a respected man is Cassio. Cassio is a respected officer of the military. Othello gave him an important promotion, turning down Iago. By doing so, he infuriates Iago while gaining the respect of Cassio. Cassio’s trust helps show that Othello is not only respected by his superiors, but also his inferiors (Douthat n. pag.).

Possibly the most important person who show’s the heroism of Othello through respect is not very obvious; it is Othello. By having self-respect, Othello carries an air of confidence, if not pomp. This is characteristic of many a tragic heroes. Eventually, this self-respect evolves into a sort of self-consciousness, which is one of the factors in Othello’s demise (Douthat n. pag.).

As it stands, Othello now has an established group of both enemies and allies. The enemies pose the challenge necessary for a hero to establish an honorable battle. Although this battle is not always won, it does show the unrelenting and never-ending struggle of good against evil. To further augment Othello’s image of righteousness, the allies represent support in the battle. However, what good is a cast of characters if the leading role does not have the necessary characteristics?

Some of the major ideal traits of any hero, never mind a tragic hero, are strength, courage and assertiveness. Without these, what point does the aforementioned battle between good and evil do? These traits help create a formidable force to contrast the evil or, in the case of a play, the antagonists. Othello also most possess these in order for many of the other qualities to work. For example, an important aspect of Othello’s heroism is the fact that he commands respect from his allies. What is there to respect in a hero as a person, or even as a distant role-model, if they do not embody desirable traits? (Shakespeare Resource Center n.pag.)

The interrelation between categories does not stop there, however. It also complements his character in dealing with the play’s antagonists. The evils of the antagonists are immediately contrasted by Othello’s righteous traits. More important that dealing with particular characters is how he deals with the more controversial situations of the play, namely racism. This takes more courage than any other problem Othello faces does (ClassicNotes Othello n. pag.).

This predicament has even more problems associated with it. Othello’s love life is often prejudiced also as an inter-racial relationship. He is often viewed as carnal, perverted, sub-human and with an uncontrollable appetite. This often transcends into other areas, such as his self-respect and dignity. It is yet another testament of the evils of racism in the world. Overall, however, Othello’s character is not as tainted as one might think, some proof of his determination and courageousness (Douthat n. pag.).

Othello’s righteous character also had a sinister side. His level of trust is ridiculously high, and he fails to see any vile efforts whatsoever. This is surprising, considering he is in the military.

Othello, we have seen, was trustful, and thorough in his trust. He put entire confidence in the honesty of Iago, who had not only been his companion in arms, but, as he believed, had just proved his faithfulness in the matter of the marriage. This confidence was misplaced, and we happen to know it; but it was no sign of stupidity in Othello. (Bradley n. pag.)

Here, Bradley expresses Othello’s obsession with trust, loyalty and honor. Even when Iago goes behind his back to bring upon his demise, Othello is trusting and assumes Iago as a loyal man. This is part of the omnipotent tragic flaw that governs Othello’s actions and determines his fate.

Aside from how it ties into other heroic traits, Othello’s courage and assertiveness is a force to be reckoned with in its own right. As an important military figure, Othello’s courage is of the highest importance in keeping his reputation and position intact. Therefore, Othello’s character not only allows him to achieve the respect and adversity that tragic heroes usually encounter, but it is also the very essence of what gives him the opportunity to become so well-respected in the first place (Othello as a Tragic Hero n. pag.).

It is imperative for a tragic hero to have a fortunate position. If he is not at the proverbial right place in the right time, the events that transpire could not possibly have happened.

Othello is a very respected military officer in the Venetian army. He is actually called into action for much of the play to help defend the Greek island of Cyprus from an imminent threat of invading Turks. This gives Othello the opportunity to show off is military skills as well as his heroic attributes. It again lends itself to such heroic values as respect, courage, determination and the like (Time and the Tragic Hero n. pag.).

An important focus of the play is about Othello’s romantic interest. This is also a common trait amongst heroes. Othello is secretly married to Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator before the play begins. He is deeply in love with her, and this soon becomes a target for Iago and Rodrigo (Othello -Race, Place and Identity n. pag.).

This romantic interest is now yet another opportunity to build up Othello’s character. This is Othello’s poetic and romantic side. Desdemona’s youth, good looks and sexuality bring out a completely different person in Othello. This is evident in much of Othello’s speech, written in graceful prose (Othello Navigator n. pag.). This is quite possible evident no better than in Othello’s dying words

Then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely but too well, / Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, / Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, / Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinable gum. Set you down this, / And say besides that in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by th throat the circumcised dog / And smote him thus. (V.ii.5�65)

Here, Othello very poetically leaves the world with a few very meaningful remarks. He remarks with a stern, yet dignified and respectful manner. He remarks about how he always felt excluded in Venetian society due to his race. Also, he relives such memories of past military success with references to “Arabian trees”. Since this is how he originally captivated Desdemona, he is also reliving memories of her (Douthat n. pag.).

The stage is now set for Othello’s development as a tragic hero. He has respect, adversity, allies, importance, romance and character. Now he needs to be distinguished from any hero to gain the title of tragic hero. His life was often met with adversity and hardship, whether it comes from his race or from his position with the military. For Othello’s story to be truly tragic, he must meet his end and the last piece of the puzzle awaits (Othello as a Tragic Hero n. pag.).

Now, the most important part of a tragic hero comes into play -- the tragic flaw. Without a tragic flaw, there would be no tragic hero or tragedies in general. It is the very essence of what drama is composed of. Of course, Othello’s final and foremost attribute that lends itself to a tragic hero is the all-powerful tragic flaw (Othello as a Tragic Hero n. pag.).

Othello’s tragic flaw is actually two-part. Trust and jealousy are the dominant themes, and they relate to each other and combine to bring about Othello’s untimely demise. In all people, insecurity breeds unconfined manifestations of their personal flaws. This is especially evident with Othello in terms of jealousy and trust. He is, by definition of a tragic hero, a revered man in a high position. As a Venetian general, he enjoys an elevated status. Still, he is subject to critical insecurities. These stem from his age, his lust and especially his race. In the face of insecurity, he becomes prompted to trust or distrust blindly out of a need to find firm ground on which to stand. Also, he becomes more likely to give in to the consuming beast that is jealousy (Othello as a Tragic Hero n. pag.).

Othello quickly becomes a victim of Iago’s destructive and manipulative tactics. Still, he is not immediately certain whether or not Iago is telling the truth. This uncertainty may in fact be exactly what drives Othello to trust and distrust Iago and Cassio respective. Such dire stress brings Othello to such a point that he acts inconsistently with his normal attitude. His entire life quickly becomes an unending spiral of confusion. If this seems extreme, it is because of not only Iago and Cassio, but also because of his lust for Desdemona and her loyalty that are in question. On top of all this to further confuse Othello is the tension of the military operation in Cyprus (Bradley n. pag.).

Because the uncertainty of not knowing whether to trust Iago or Cassio was so intense, Othello was driven to very uncharacteristic behavior, as he sat on the proverbial fence. Othello acted against his own previously established notions that Cassio was his friend because this offered him an escape from ambiguity. Out of necessity, he vested his trust in Iago, and grew to distrust his best friend. The problem further materializes once this newfangled distrust leads to jealousy (Othello Guide n. pag.).

But perhaps Othello was still unsure. Could both his best friend and his lover be going behind his back simultaneously? Again, the uncertainty was too painful, and Othello acted in an out-of-character manner. He chose the extreme of killing Desdemona because he needed to relieve the pounding confusion, paranoia and distrust that no doubt racked his brain. In these instances, insecurity and ambiguity drove Othello to the extremes of two inherent flaws as a tragic hero, jealousy and trust (Bradley n. pag.).

Of course, no tragic flaw would be complete if it did not bring about the demise of the character. Once Othello realized the atrocity he had committed by taking Desdemona’s life, he decided to go out in true Shakespearean style. He commits suicide and effectively establishes the tragedy that is Othello (The Tragedy of Othello n. pag.).

The tragic hero has become a figure that is embraced by the literatural community. It represents one of the largest enigmas to be analyzed throughout the ages of writing. Not only does it have many complex components that represent the evolution of literature as we know it, but it also has come to be associated with its own attribute of literature, the tragic flaw. Of course, the man to revolutionize this was none other than Shakespeare, and his work in Othello has helped pave the road for many more works to come in the field (Themes of Othello n. pag.).

Othello’s role as a tragic hero has in many ways changed the face of drama in literature. It has become a prime example of the tragic hero and it has laid down an opportunity for similar pieces of fine literature. In conclusion, Othello, is the quintessence of what is the tragic hero.

AC Bradley. Othello. n.d. 01 April 00.


Bently, Gerald ed. Othello. New York Pelican Books, 186

ClassicNotes Othello. n.d. 04 April 00


Douthat, Ross. SparkNotes on Othello. n.d. 0 April 00.


Othello as a Tragic Hero. N.d. 05 April 00


Othello Navigator. n.d. 0 April 00.


Othello -Race, Place and Identity. n.d. 0 April 00.


Shakespeare Othello Guide. n.d. 0 April 00.


Shakespeare Resource Center - Othello. n.d. 1 April 00.


Themes of Othello. n.d. 0 April 00.


The Tragedy of Othello The Moor of Venice. n.d.. 0 April 00


Time and the Tragic Hero. n.d. 05 April 00


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