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Recognition in Tragedy – Othello

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    ’There are various degrees of recognition in tragedy. In Othello, recognition is minimal: the protagonist learns what he has done and what he has lost, but learns little or nothing about himself. ’’ How far do you agree? – This is a quote that I have adapted into my thesis, taken from ‘’A Book of literary terms’’. Anagnorisis, a Greek word meaning ‘’recognition’’, is described by Aristotle as ‘’a change from ignorance to knowledge’’. I agree with this statement as, in the play Othello, Othello’s character experiences this transition but not fully, he doesn’t get to the point of self realisation where he can be ‘’wash[ed]’’ (V. II. 278) or cleansed to reach redemption. In Othello, recognition is minimal as the character never manages to completely understand himself or his actions. In Act V scene II Othello’s last speeches are dignified, but they lack purpose as he doesn’t seem to have a full understanding of all that has happened. He uses his first speech to condemn himself and his ghastly deed. Othello does seem to feel genuine remorse, as he blames himself, but he almost doesn’t fully recognise that it was by his own doing that she lay there dead.

    Othello’s character lets us know that he has recognised his mistake, referring to himself as ‘’not valiant neither’’ (V. II. 241) this being a contrast against him formally known as ‘’the valiant Moor’’ throughout the play. This name ‘’Valiant Othello’’ gave him pride in himself, he had a sense of belonging and for him to admit that he is ‘’not valiant neither’’, whilst using a double negative enforcing the power and belief in the words, gives us the idea that he knows the depth of the sin he has committed, but not how he is held responsible. Why is the word ‘’Valiant’’ used?

    The word itself originating from the French ‘’ Vallant’’ coming from the verb ‘’Valoir’’ – to be of worth. We still ask whether he was worthy of Desdemona, and whether he was ready to love someone. Othello’s character begins to speak of himself in the third person ‘’Man but a rush against Othello’s breast and he retires where should Othello go? ’’ (V. II. 268-269). This could indicate his first real signs of recognition. He gets a sense of detachment and is able to look at himself and compare his actions as others would. He goes on to describe Desdemona as ‘’ill –starred’’ meaning ill-fated.

    This brings him back to square one in my eyes, these words showing us that he still believes there is a chance that her fate was already set out for her, and therefore nothing could have been done. He places responsibility in the hands of fate – he calls Desdemona an “ill-starred wench” – this hardly being a gallant course of action. I found it interesting that he goes on to plead ‘’ wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire’’ (V. II. 278). Using the word ‘’wash’’ is a strange way to describe a punishment, as usually it would be associated with purification and cleansing.

    Here he is asking to be cleansed with ‘’liquid fire’’ but one cannot be washed with fire, fire is associated with burning and destruction, and more importantly hell. He knows he will go to hell for it, ‘’fiends’’ (V. II. 273) snatching him back from heaven. In his initial self-disgust and remorse at realising the truth of Desdemona’s innocence, Othello is genuinely anguished. “This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven and fiends will snatch at it. ” (V. II. 272-273) – Imagery being used to describe hell to us and how he sees it through his eyes, ‘’fiends’’ being another word for devil.

    It is clear that he is in torment because of her death, but is it because he knows it is he himself that caused himself to do the deed? Othello is a very long way from any such recognition. His metaphors of roses (‘’pluck thy rose’’ V. II. 13) and lights (put out the light, and then put out the light’’ V. II. 7) can be seen as nothing more than essential, self-protective euphemisms. They steady him and reassure him of what he initially believes (but to us as an audience we see it as precarious).

    Othello’s allusion to Prometheus explains his wish to put out Desdemona’s light in order to restore her former innocence. At the time of her murder Othello seems intent upon dwelling in beautiful images and poetic metaphors to hide the wrongness of his deed – he continues to do this after her murder, covering up his sin with metaphors such as ‘’this look of thine will hurl me from heaven’’ again placing the blame on her almost. He juxtaposes heaven and hell – the ‘’winds’’ and the ‘’sulphur’’ and the idea of ‘’’roasting [in] liquid fire’’ (V.

    II 277-278) – to Desdemona’s ‘’whiter skin of hers than snow ‘’ (V. II. 4) this explains his despair, and the virtue he finds that Desdemona did possess. The two last orations of Othello are noble in speech and purpose, but lack comprehension. He uses the first to attack himself for his horrible deed. He delivers condemnation upon himself with eloquence and anguish. The last speech he gives in his final role as a leader, directing the men who remain how to deal with what has happened and showing them he has purged or is rid of the evil, asking them to ‘’speak of [him] as [he] is’’ (V.

    II. 338). Othello condemns his hand for the sin he commits (“of one whose hand [… ] threw a pearl away”). (V. II. 342) This idea that his body is somehow possessed with evil, again describing a detachment, but not by his own doing, is perpetuated in his last words: ‘’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. 348-352).

    This quote is said by the character, almost reciting another one of his war stories that once would ‘’draw her thence’’ (I. III. 146). Othello truly believes that a malignant Turk has taken over the good Venetian within him. He still doesn’t see that his faults are exploited by Iago. Although he kills himself in such a dignified fashion, Othello is really thinking that he was forced to do this by some unseen evil power. He never seems to have any complete sense of tragic recognition.

    This final speech is a statement of Othello’s private, inner reflection on himself. As previously mentioned Othello stands back from himself and speaks in the third person. Othello is introspective, and his introspection is frequently displayed by striking and beautiful images, but this sense of himself must certainly be considered in any attempt to mask Othello’s responsibility or at least complicity in the crime for his trusting Iago and failing to trust Cassio and Desdemona.

    It is a noble speech, and a noble ending, but like Othello, it is flawed. Othello insists that he is an “honourable murderer” (V. II. 291) but he meant to kill Iago out of anger, and Desdemona out of jealousy and offended pride. Iago was definitely the cause for Desdemona’s death and Othello’s jealous rages, but the jealousy and suspicion were already inherent in Othello. Since Othello still denies his part in the murder he cannot be fully redeemed or forgiven.

    Despite the high manner in which he speaks, his final words show that he does not quite understand himself or what he has done. His goal is to tell the messengers from Venice what has happened, but he lacks insight and his words are inarticulate. Othello says he “loved not wisely, but too well. ” (V. 2. 404) what does he mean by ‘’too well’’? It is true that he did not love wisely, but I believe that neither did he love too well. His marriage is based on her admiration for his stories and ‘’pity’’.

    And while it might be debatable whether Othello is “easily jealous” or just gullible, he does buy into Iago’s tale of deceit very easily based on no more than a handkerchief that he ‘’so loved and gave [her]’’ (V. II. 46) and the villain’s twisted words. In tragedy, tragic realisation (anagnorisis) leaves the protagonist to make a choice to be able to redeem himself. As Othello dies his last words are ‘’I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss. ’’ (V. II. 354-355). Even these words show signs of the character ridding himself of the blame.

    Upon killing Desdemona, ‘’he kisses her’’ (stage direction V. II. 16), this kiss almost causes him to subconsciously be drawn back into reality for him to recognise her innocence. For him ‘’to die upon a kiss’’, in comparing the two situations I believe that Othello compares his death to hers, once again proclaiming his innocence. I consider Othello as a confused character, but through his last two speeches I collected enough evidence to back up my point, that there is little recognition in Othello, especially in Act V scene II.

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