Othello was written between 1602 and 1604. It was performed in the court in the autumn of 1604. The plot was borrowed from Geraldi Cinthio’s collection of tales Hecatommithi (1565). Othello is probably the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, even more so than Romeo and Juliet. Othello is arguably the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and the mystic element of this tragedy lies in the fact that at many times in the play, the tragedy could have been averted but it was not to be and the tragic ending was as if pre destined even though Iago’s skillful planning was worth noticing.
The term tragic hero was coined much before Shakespeare made it a household term in the 1500’s. the idea of a tragic hero was first explained in Aristotle’s Poetics. This book attempts to theorize the complex experience of a tragedy. There are some characteristics of a tragic hero or heroine which Aristotle has underlined in this book. Othello fits the description perfectly and maybe more than any other tragic hero. Let us see how.
According to the theory of catharsis, tragic heroes were noble characters yet had a very human personality. Thus, the common man was able to identify with them (which was imperative for the experience of a tragedy) and were also able to look up to them for their virtues and goodness. Othello is one of his kind in Venice as Iago himself points out at the start of the play “Another of his fathom they have none/To lead their business”(Act 1, scene (i), 153-154). He is a noble man who has grace with ladies and is an able military general. He is reliable and everyone hears when he speaks.
His valiant personality draws people to him and this is the cause of Desdemona’s love for him. “she gave me for my pains a world of sighs:”. (Act I, scene (iii), 158). The duke of Venice and the other noblemen also hold him in high esteem due to his prowess as a soldier and as a general and save him from Brabantio’s wrath and baseless accusations of practicing witchcraft. They defend him by saying that “If virtue no delighted beauty lack/ Your son-in-law is far more fair than black”. (Act 1, scene (iii), 285-286). Othello has lived a hard life full of torments and tortures and adventures which a common man would rather not have. He tells us so himself when he recounts his experiences in front of the Duke and the court “Of moving accidents by flood and field/ Of hair breadth scapes i’th imminent deadly breach…..” (Act I, scene (iii), 134-135).
All these hard experiences have made him tough and he is a great soldier. His physical appearance is not too pleasing as he is often referred to as black, thick lipped by Iago and Roderigo. But where he loses in appearance, he more than makes up for by his excellent virtues and honest personality. He is humble (“Rude am I in my speech……..speak” Act I, scene(iii), 81-86) and confident that Desdemona thinks nothing of his social status or his less than pleasing appearance but loves him for his rich experience of life and the fact that he is a survivor. His colleagues also speak well of him which is evident when Montano says “For I have served him and the man commands/ Like a full soldier…. ”. (Act II, scene (i), 36-37). Thus by all means, he is a desirable character and in spite of the heights of his righteousness, he is well grounded and human and thus satisfies the noble image of a tragic hero.
Tragic heroes were supposed to have a tragic flaw or harmartia. This flaw is the cause of the events in the play and without this, the tragedy would never take place and the hero will acquire godly status. The flaw varies from play to play. King Lear’s flaw was arrogance, Macbeth’s was in ambition. Othello’s tragic flaw is (a) his gullibility and (b) his inferiority complex which again leads to his gullibility. These tragic flaws in Othello lead to his distrustful attitude towards Desdemona. He falls into Iago’s plots and manipulations so easily that it becomes difficult to reconcile the distrustful Othello with the noble Othello who was introduced to us in the beginning. True, Iago is a master of human psyche so much so that the characters seem to be dancing to his tune. But Othello’s excessive trust in Iago is the harbinger of his downfall.
Iago manipulates his feelings, drops insinuations, employs reverse psychology and in all succeeds in convincing Othello of Desdemona’s adultery on the basis of merely circumstantial evidence. Othello falls so much into the trap that he declares to Iago “I am bound to thee forever”. (Act III, scene (iii), 212). Thus Othello believes whatever Iago feeds him without even once consulting his own good reason and logical prowess. Whether it is Iago’s triumph or it is Othello’s failure is again a matter of perception. Secondly, Othello’s inferiority complex makes him believe that he is undeserving of Desdemona and is unable to come up to her expectations so that she seeks her gratification somewhere else hence committing adultery. He himself admits his inferiority “Haply, for I am black……into the vale of years”. (Act III, scene (iii), 260-264). It is this gullibility and inferiority complex that constitute his tragic flaw and lead him to his downfall.
After all the action has take place in the play, the tragic hero must be punished for what some may call his fault and others may call fate. The tragic hero accepts his fall with dignity and grace. Othello too honorably commits suicide when he realizes his folly in killing his innocent wife for no rhyme or reason except Iago’s venomous stories. He only asks to be remembered for good than bad when he says “Speak of me as I am: nothing extenuate/ nor……….their med’cinable gum” (Act V, scene (ii), 338-348). It is in the death scene, which has been so effectively put across, that the tragic figure of Othello is transformed into a hero and the audience looks upon him with sympathy rather than condemnation for his acts. Whatever his faults, whatever his fate or whatever his actions, he is a hero and a tragic one at that and he is to be sympathized with not looked down upon.
The events in the play move smoothly. But at many places in the play, it looks as if the tragedy can be averted by a little luck favoring the main characters. It is this chance element in the play that makes the audience believe that it is fortune which has spurned Othello so much that whatever happens is fated to happen and he has almost no control over it. The strategic timings of entry and exit of characters, the dropping of the legendary handkerchief by Desdemona, Cassio’s meetings with Desdemona and Desdemona’s vouching for Cassio- all seem to be fated and point towards a conspiracy that heaven has meted upon Othello who cuts a sorry figure.
All fortune seems to be favoring Iago who makes the best use of circumstances and in fact brings them. The gods seem to be smiling on Iago and everything moves smoothly according to his plans. It is only in the V and the last act that we see Iago’s plans foiled mainly due to the inefficiency of Roderigo. Driven to violence by the failure of his plans, Iago soils his hands for the first time in the play by murdering Roderigo and wounding Cassio. Until then, Othello seems to be a mere pawn in the field cunningly set up by Iago and lovingly blessed by the Gods.
It can however be argued that it is Othello’s gullibility that is instrumental as the cause of all the chaos, mayhem and the over whelming tragedy of the play. During the course of the play, he is transformed from a man who is highly respected into a mere shadow of his earlier noble personality. Lodovico echoes this change when he says “Is this the noble Moor………neither graze nor pierce?” (Act IV, scene (i), 267-270). Also Othello earlier in the court in front of the duke, expresses confidence in his wife’s love for him by saying “I do beseech you………..fall upon my life” ( Act I, scene (iii), 116-120). Later the same Othello, on Iago’s instigations and even in the obvious lack of incriminating evidence, disbelieves his wife and accuses her of being unfaithful to him with Cassio.
This change in Othello is too stark, too drastic and too shocking to be the result of merely change and fate. Fortune never brings such astounding downfalls unless it is helped in its cause by the victim himself. Othello brings all this tragedy upon himself because of certain lapses in his character and it is these loopholes that make him believe Iago, kill his wife and bring this catastrophe upon himself. He could have averted it with good sense, faith and attitude, but instead he surrenders before fate and Iago’s master plan. Thus it is his tragic flaws which are the cause of his miseries in the play. Has he been assertive, less gullible and more trusting towards his wife, had he felt himself worthy of her and capable of satisfying all her needs, Iago would never have succeeded and he would have been the best example of man ever put forward in any story.
Thus even though it is clear that fate plays an extremely important part in the events of the play, it is also obvious that Othello invites trouble by his attitude and is lead by Iago as a shepherd leads a blind sheep. His tragic flaw is the essence of the story as it is this flaw that makes things happen ad makes the story tragic and which lends a human touch to Othello’s character which would otherwise become almost godly in nature. Human beings have flawed characters, they make mistakes, they fall into traps and they also have the habit of believing whatever is fed to them through a reliable source, however unbelievable it may sound. Iago, being a mastermind, knows all this and he bases his plans on his understanding of human nature. That luck favors him, is another dimension all together.
Thus Othello’s tragedy is a combination of ill fate and flawed character. it seems that the gods have something against Othello throughout the play and he himself does a lot to further Iago’s cause. Both bad luck and his character are the cause of the tragedy in the play. It is this human element, portrayed through Othello’s faults that makes the play so acceptable to the human audience and makes them identify with Othello’s misery. Had it been a tale of lick, the audience would have left feeling frustrated and unsatisfied. The human element draws them into sympathy and makes them applaud and appreciate the drama. It because of this correct mixture of mysticism and humanity that the play is such a major success. It continues to amuse, amaze, petrify, perplex and obsess us even about 500 years after its inception.