Aristotle is a widely known for his contribution to the literary and philosophical world. One of the most intriguing pieces of literature is his description of a tragic hero in so many of his poetic works. Aristotle puts forward that for an individual to quality a hero in tragic context the character must draw a sense of fear or pity from the audience. The tragedy should bring out the downfall of a very eminent or noble person through a mixture of fate, hubris, and the gods’ will. The tragic hero must make some mistake, and then undergo some change in the end by experiencing some revelation or a series of revelations. From one of his poetic (Else & Aristotle, 1970) says:
Tragedy, then, is a process of imitating an action that has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude; by means of language which has been made sensuously attractive, with each of its varieties found separately in the parts; enacted by the persons themselves and not presented through narrative; through a course of pity and fear completing the purification of such emotions (p.25).
The hero or heroine should not only hold some eminence but a good person but not of an absolute virtuous character in nature. He argues that the suffering of an overly virtuous person will not generate the feeling of compassion and terror that are expected from a tragic story but rather those of disgust. In particular, the hero in the tragic unfolding should not come out as the villain or as some wicked character for his or her fall. This paper wants to explore the character of Othello from “Othello, Moor of Venice” by William Shakespeare the decorated playwright and how he brings out the Great philosopher Aristotle tragic hero in this play.
First, one needs to understand what exactly what characteristics should a tragic hero possess from Aristotle perspective. The main traits are those of a good character that includes, true to self, true to type, true to life and probable. Aristotle dismisses two kinds of characters the overly virtuous and extremely bad. In other words, the tragic hero character is an intermediate character that lies between these two extremes. The hero should have mixed character that is neither absolutely depraved nor blameless. The misfortune should emanate from some flaw or error in the character, or lacking moral taint. The change occurs due to some sort frailty in the character.
The second important thing is to explain the tragedy of Othello by giving a short synopsis of the play in which character is featured by Shakespeare. The play “Othello, the Moor of Venice” is begun with Iago, a soldier who is arguing with Roderigo a wealthy businessman who has paid him to track Othello movements since he wants to take his girlfriend, Desdemona. However, Iago has failed his part of honoring the deal. Iago loathes Othello for giving away his position to Cassio during his absence a position that Iago always long to have. Iago plots avenge on Othello by suggesting to Othello that his wife, Desdemona is having an affair with the Cassio. Iago plan to take revenge is not leaving out even his friends at some point he even tells Roderigo to ambush Cassi though it ends up with Cassio inflicting wounds on his assailant. This trickery costs Cassio his job.
The scheming Iago finds another loophole to attack Othello asking Cassio to ask Desdemona to talk with Othello so that he can get his job back. Iago goes ahead to convince his wife to take the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona to use it as bait into tricking Othello. Successfully, they still the handkerchief and plant it in Cassio bedroom who gives to his mistress Bianca. After learning the handkerchief belong to another woman the infuriated Bianca storms at Cassio with the handkerchief in hand. At this moment, Othello was listening to Cassio narrating of his story with Bianca. Thinking Cassio was talking of Desdemona he confirms his fears from the handkerchief escapade between Bianca and Cassio.
The angry Othello decides to take away the life of Desdemona, his wife. Iago scheme brings the death, of Roderigo, Desdemona, and Othello finally. Othello realizes the grave mistake he had done through Emilia, Iago’s wife confessions. Emilia confessions make Othello hates himself that he feels so empty without the love of his life, and so he resolves to commit suicide.
As playwright Shakespeare has employed the Aristotle tragic hero. The first important element of Aristotle employed in the play is katharsis that according to (Kennedy & Gioia, pg 857) refers to the purification of our feelings into some level of nobility. Classical Student: Othello: Shakespeare’s Aristotelian Tragedy (n.d):
The audience may not come away from a production of Othello laughing or feeling particularly cheerful, but they will certainly feel as though they have learned something important and witnessed an epic drama that has affected them morally and spiritually. This is the purpose of tragedy – to dramatize the weaknesses, despair, and failings of the human spirit and to demonstrate how to better ourselves through this experience (pg.4).
From the introduction of the play, Othello is described as Venetian general who is well respected and who just got married to Desdemona. Apart from successful personal life, Othello, is doing well in his career that makes a well-recognized person in Cyprus after winning battles Turkish ships. The nobility of Othello is described very well by the various characters in the play Shakespeare (2010):
Othello … our noble and valiant general (81), said by a herald and [Othello] … the noble Moor, whom our full Senate/ Call all in all sufficient, says Lodovico. Also, Othello is termed noble in Iago’s soliloquy: [Othello] is of a constant, loving, noble nature, / and I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona/ A most dear husband (79).
This conforms to the first characteristic that Aristotle uses to describe a tragic hero as a person who similar to average human beings, though successful, noble, prosperous, noble, and renowned. The person describe in particular man, has done well in his career, personal life and as readers we fall for their characters just like Othello has done. However, at the end of the play Shakespeare fails the standards placed by Aristotle by stripping Othello his success and superiority.
As a requirement from the Aristotle second trait since the tragic hero is a human being, it is of the essence for them to makes judgmental errors or have a flaw in character. This is commonly referred as harmartia. Shakespeare entangles the same idea from Aristotle view of a tragic hero through the character of Othello. Othello is gullible in spite of him being a successful and very a noble man. Despite the reluctance to believe what Iago is telling him about his wife Desdemona, which are pure lies, he finally fall for it and even admits in the Act III of the play, Now do I see ‘tis true.” Besides that, Iago understands well that Othello is easily tricked and proclaims this to the reader at the end of Act I: “And will as tenderly be led by ‘the nose.” However, playwrights who gave attention Aristotle considered peripeteia which meant the reversal of fortune, for good or for bad. Sophocle’s Oedipus Rex is considered as the most coincidental example of such an occurrence.
The third and last important element of a tragic hero as describe by Aristotle is the anagnorisis that consist of two section as explained by (MacFarlane, 2000); “The first part of the definition characterizes recognition as a change from ignorance into knowledge, leading either to friendship or enmity” (p.367). From” Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex”, the authors of the article Jean-Pierre Vernant and Page duBois says that Oedipus alone is responsible for the plot. The determination he shows to find knowledge is the avenue through which the truth comes out: “Thus in the moment when he knows himself responsible for making his unhappiness, he will be able to accuse the gods of having prepared all, done all” (p.477). This recognition, that is defined by Aristotle as the anagnorisis that is accompanied by peripeteia (the reversal of fortune) are hitched well in Oedipus Rex as they occur simultaneously. From Othello plot, it is vividly noticed that recognition and reversal are not happening at the same time. Shakespeare wrote the play how he saw it fit by making Othello tragic much deeper. The audience for the Shakespearean writing was also different and larger since most people went and paid to watch the plays. He created the Othello character noble enough as the ideal hero of tragedy and more specifically, not for forgetting to sub-humanize him enough for the men to recognize and pity him.
The moment of recognition for Othello is where Shakespeare climaxes the play as everything falls into perspective. The audience at the moment has their feeling and emotions heightened. As stated by Herzel (1974);
When the man is Othello, a special kind of double vision comes into play: looking through our own eyes, we see the injustice of the action, but looking through the eyes of Othello we see its justice with equal clarity… In tragedy, then we witness an imitation of an action which has a terrible significance of which we are fully aware but the agent is not (498).
The audience connects with Desdemona innocence and the trickery played on the Othello by Iago leading him to kill his wife and at the end taking his life.
In conclusion, it is important for one to distinguish a pronounced Aristotle drama from a simple comedy play. Aristotle drama is distinctively featured by; katharsis, harmatia, and anagnorisis as described by (Kennedy & Gioia, 2010, p. 856-858). Shakespeare creates a great tragic drama through the portraying the end of the Othello, the Moorish general that came from jealousy and deceit. As great philosopher Aristotle influence is evident in Othello, as one can clear decipher that he hand in stipulating the tragic canon of Shakespeare as it was commonly known. The tragic flaw, the purge of sentiments through the deaths and the punishment on Iago, and the experiences at the end of the Othello character demonstrates the eloquence of each qualification of Aristotle tragic hero by Shakespeare.
Else, G., & Aristotle. (1970). Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Herzel, R. W. (1974). “Anagnorisis” and “Peripeteia” in Comedy. Educational Theatre Journal , 26 (4), 495-505.
Kennedy, X., & Gioia, D. (2010). Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (6th Compact Edition ed.). (X. Kennedy, & D. Gioia, Eds.) New York: Longman.
MacFarlane, J. (2000). Aristotle’s Definition of “Anagnorisis”. The American Journal of Philology , 121, 367-383.
Shakespeare, W. (2010). Othello, the Moor of Venice. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (6th Compact Edition ed.). (X. Kennedy, & D. Gioia, Eds.) New York: Longman.
Vernant, J. P., & DuBois, P. (1978). Ambiguity and reversal: on the enigmatic structure of Oedipus Rex. New Literary History, 475-501.
Also read How to Write About Your Personal Heroes.