To what extent does Othello meet the criteria of a tragic hero?
The characteristics of a tragic hero are explained in Aristotle’s theory. Aristotle said that a tragic hero must go through four stages. These are Peripateia, which is an utter and complete downfall from a very high status such as a king, prince etc… to catastrophe and misery. Hamartia, which is a fatal or tragic flaw in the hero. Anagnorisis, which is recognition of the hero’s mistakes, and Catharsis, which is when the audience is purged of all negative emotions towards the hero.
For many years there has been a great deal of controversy over the character of Othello in Shakespeare’s play. Critics have debated the extent to which Othello can be considered a tragic hero, but there are two critics, whose views are held within higher consideration than the others. The first of these critics is A.C. Bradley who believes that Othello is one of the greatest of all tragic heroes. The latter of these critics is one F.R. Leavis who believes that Othello does not truly qualify for the tragic hero status.
Bradley and Leavis both agree on the fact that Othello never reaches a complete Peripateia, but for vastly different reasons A. C. Bradley’s argument is that “The Othello of the fourth act is Othello during his downfall. His fall is never complete but his grandeur remains almost undiminished”. This demonstrates to us that Bradley accepts the fact that Othello’s downfall is never truly complete, but he remains steadfast in his view that Othello retains some form of nobility and honour. He sees Othello as “Virtually faultless”. We can see this when he says “Othello does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we not know whence – almost as if from a wonderland”. This displays to us the extent to which Bradley sees Othello as a pure, faultless figure.
Leavis’s argues that Othello is “Overly aware of his nobility” and thus lacking in the requirements of a true tragic hero. We can see this when Leavis says that “Othello’s “like a pontic sea” speech is overblown and self dramatising” This shows us that Leavis holds a genuine disrespect for Othello, and that he is able to interpret what we would normally consider to be a virtue, as a flaw through thorough analysis. Leavis says that “Eloquence is a form of arrogance” this can be seen when Othello says that he is “rude in his speech”. This shows us the extent that Leavis analyses Othello’s virtues and is able to interpret them as flaws. My opinion is more towards that of A.C. Bradley. My reasons behind this are that Othello is descended from royal blood and was taken as a slave. Is this not an utter and complete downfall from a high status?
With regards to Hamartia, Bradley argues that Othello is a practically “faultless hero”, whose strengths and virtues are used against him by the character of Iago. Bradley argues that Othello’s only trait of character is his strong and absolute trust. He argues that Othello’s trust can be seen through his words to Iago when he says “My ancient, a man he is of honesty and trust to his conveyance, I assign my wife”. Although it could also be argued that Othello illustrates another flaw in his character in that he regards his wife as a possession. With regard to Othello’s action, Bradley exonerates Othello away from all guilt when he says that “[Othello's] opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him”. This demonstrates to us that Othello was not the only one that was deceived and manipulated by Iago. Another example of this can be seen through Iago’s manipulation of the character of Cassio
When Iago says “Your Dane, your German and your swag bellied Hollander – drink, ho! – are nothing to your English”. This is a clear example of Othello not being the only one that was manipulated by Iago, in the sense that Cassio trusted Iago to take care of him in the event of him getting drunk. Iago abused this trust by allowing him to get into a fight. It shows us that it was not through fault of Othello that he was manipulated; so much as it was through the strength of Iago’s will power. This is very similar to my own opinion of Othello in terms of Hamartia. I do not for one second believe that Othello is “virtually faultless”, but I do agree with the idea that it was not through fault of Othello that he was manipulated by Iago, I agree that it was Iago’s immense will power that corrupted him.
The idea that Othello’s character is much more complex is argued by Leavis. Leavis argues that “Othello’s trust is not strong or “absolute” as Bradley proposes, and therefore can’t be Othello’s fatal flaw. This can be seen in Othello’s inconsistent treatment of Cassio, Iago and Desdemona”. Looking at this, I agree with Leavis on the subject of Hamartia because Leavis does put forward a solid argument on the subject. Leavis sees Othello as a character that is full of flaws. He argues that Othello is “egotistical…with a habit of self-approving dramatising.” This puts forward a very strong view of Othello. We can see what Leavis is talking about when Othello says “My parts, my title and my perfect soul”.
The question of whether or not Othello truly experiences Anagnorisis remains in debate to this very day. Bradley argues that in killing Desdemona, “Othello sacrifices Desdemona to save her from herself in honour and love”. This shows us that Othello does at least have good intentions behind his evil deeds. Another example of this is when Othello says “She must die, else she’ll betray more men”. Once again this demonstrates honour and nobility on Othello’s part. Bradley justifies Othello’s actions by placing all of the blame upon Iago’s head, which he supports with Othello’s impassioned cry “But what serves for the thunder! Precious Villain.” Subsequently, Bradley does not attempt to see that Othello achieves Anagnorisis, as he is not to blame for the tragedy that occurs during the play.
We can see that Bradley is disinclined to affiliate Anagnorisis with the character of Othello because he believes that Othello “Is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection”. This shows that Bradley’s argument for Othello in terms of Anagnorisis is rather weak in the sense that it contradicts Bradley’s argument of Hamartia. This is where Leavis is able to exploit the weakness in Bradley’s argument.
Leavis, on the other hand argues that Othello struggles to reach complete Anagnorisis because of the fact that he doesn’t take full recognition or responsibility for his actions, and he fails to see the faults and traits within his character. “But he remains the same Othello, he has discovered his mistake but there is no tragic self discovery”. This shows us that Othello has made no inclination that he has realised his mistakes or the faults within himself.
Leavis says that when Othello does attempt to show some form of regret it is self dramatisation as opposed to complete and genuine remorse. “Othello’s noble lack of self knowledge is shown as humiliating and disastrous”. We can see from this that Othello’s self dramatisation is very over the top and inappropriate. Leavis argues that Othello doesn’t at any point acknowledge his“gullibility and stupidity” during his downfall and Desdemona’s death. Leavis shows us how Othello has great misconceptions about what has taken place. He generally believes that his actions were entirely honourable. We can see this when Othello says “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour” yet evidence that is given is entirely to the contrary when Othello says “I would not kill thy unprepared spirit; No heaven forefend, I would not kill thy soul” . Despite this, Othello does not allow Desdemona to pray once more despite the statement “I would not kill thy unprepared spirit”. This once again shows us that the character of Othello is completely full of contradictions.
The question of whether Catharsis takes place within the character of Othello remains in debate between A. C. Bradley and F. R. Leavis. Bradley’s argument is that by Act 5, “Othello’s anger has passed, and sorrow has taken its place”. This suggests that Othello does meet Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero in terms of Catharsis because through this, the audience are purged of all negative emotions towards Othello. It also shows us Othello’s character being purified because of the fact that by this point in the play, we generally feel sorry for Othello. Bradley says that “His sufferings are so heart rendering that he stirs, in most reader, a passion of mingled love and pity.” We can see an example of this when Othello says “Desdemon, dead!” The affectionate use of the word “Desdemon” suggests authenticity and adds poignancy. Bradley shares the same opinion as me on the subject of Catharsis in Othello. I believe this due to the fact that I, as a reader am able to view Othello as the audience would. So I as a reader feel that I am purged of all negative feelings towards Othello by the end of the play.
Leavis completely dismisses Bradley’s argument, believing that he is “Clouded by his manifestations of perfect nobility”. He says that the only way in which the audience might feel any sympathy for Othello is because of the fact that Othello is strongly manipulated by Iago. Leavis does not believe that Catharsis occurs because in Othello’s final speech, he talks in third person, keeping the audience at a distance, and throughout this speech, Othello is “preoccupied with his emotions rather than Desdemona in her own right”. We can see this when Othello says “Speak of me as I am”. From this we are able to see that despite the tragedy that has occurred by this point in the play, Othello is still concerned with his own losses and his reputation, rather than the loss of his beloved wife Desdemona.
In light of the two main arguments for and against the idea of Othello as a tragic hero, I have drawn the conclusion that Othello, despite his traits, is indeed a tragic hero. It is true that he is egotistical, overly aware of his nobility, and he is easily manipulated and jealous to the extent that he murders his wife. But it is also blatantly obvious that he is emotionally distraught about what he does. So much to the extent that he takes his own life. Othello isn’t perfect. He is a human being who suffers from faults of character as we all do. Leavis says that Othello is wrong to trust Iago, and because of this holds a lot of prejudice against him. But the fact is that we only see this fault because we witness the plot from an all seeing point of view. Without the knowledge that Iago is a deceitful villain, we would hold nothing against Othello. He was mislead, used and manipulated through his immense trust in Iago. But is trust not a virtue? It is through his utter and complete trust that Shakespeare creates a character so pure, poetic and articulate which is Othello. Othello doesn’t meet all of the requirements for a tragic hero, but he does achieve most of them to a certain extent. I believe that Bradley and Leavis are both ignorant in their judgments of Othello. They both hold the same traits that Leavis associates with Othello, in the sense that there is no middle ground. Othello isn’t a complete tragic hero, but he is without a shadow of a doubt a hero, who falls victim to a great tragedy which leads to his own death and the death of his wife. Does this not sound like a tragedy? I personally believe that Othello, despite all of his traits and errors is a tragic hero.