Tracing His Progress Throughout The Play, Examine Othello's Presentation as 'Tragic Hero'
“A play inspiring fear and pity in which the protagonist moves from the highest point to the lowest.” This is so in ‘Othello’ as the eponymous protagonist moves from the savior of the state to a mentally disturbed suicidal murderer - Tracing His Progress Throughout The Play, Examine Othello's Presentation as 'Tragic Hero' introduction. The traditional mould of the Shakespearean tragic hero understands and accepts his tragic fate. However, Othello reacts differently.
Othello was the first Black character in English literature causing an immediate impact on audiences. Shakespeare knew many Elizabethan’s would be prejudiced and associate Othello with brutality, ignorance, evil and sexual immorality; the qualities of a ‘Blackman.’ This is mainly reflected through the characters Iago and Roderigo in the opening scene. We do not meet Othello until the second scene, a technique used in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies as an effective theatrical device which builds suspense for the protagonist’s first entrance. We learn of a strong negative impression towards him which will confirm the Elizabethans original thoughts. Stereotyped as ‘black’, Othello is expected to practice magic and be connected with evil, which is portrayed by Iago and Roderigo as they patronizingly nickname him, “The Devil,” “His Moorship,” “Thicklips,” “Old black ram,” and “Barbary horse”; and Arabian through bred, a reference designed to evoke Othello’s Barbarism.
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However, when we finally meet Othello he is, surprisingly, sympathetically drawn. He is illustrated as a highly promoted and respected General, a man of calm integrity, dutiful and loving husband to the pure Desdemona are immediately attractive. Othello speaks with a measured calm in his first speeches, “My parts, my title and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly.” Although he could be accused of pride or immodesty, he proves he is not the pompous creature described previously; in spite of his clandestine marriage he is open about his actions, both the Duke of Venice and Montano think a great deal of Othello as a General, and a leader of others, entrusting him with the defense of Cyprus. As we are now fully introduced to Othello our impressions are affected by his exotic background, charismatic presence, dignified manner and wide experience of the world.
Othello has a substantial opinion of himself and is very confident. This could be interpreted as a calm and rightful sense of self worth or as an early sign of his faults. Othello proves his authority as a leader when he orders there be no fighting, emphasisng his noble and civilized character, with a peaceful and distinguished approach.
Up until Act 3, Scene 3 Othello is proven to be a loving and contented husband. However, this scene is the turning point for him, and his views of Desdemona have a crucial transformation; from the man who could deny nothing, Othello is now an avenger swearing an oath to murder, “Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her, damn her…hang her, I do but say what she is.” The manipulative, machiavellian Iago has changed one mans love into determination to kill an unfaithful wife.
From this point onwards, Othello falls at a devastating rate. The mild, early hints of Othello’s jealousy and mistrust become evident as he continues to fall. In Othello’s first soliloquy he proves he has immense trust in Iago; “This fellow is of exceeding honesty.” This is also shown, as Othello’s certainty of his trust in Desdemona is set against his faith in Iago; “My life upon her faith: honest Iago.”
“I think my wife be honest, and think she is not / I think that thou art just, and think thou art not…” This is the point Othello chooses whether to place his trust in Iago over Desdemona, torn between suspicion and loyalty, trying to determine the truth. However, Othello misplaces his trust into Iago.
At the end of the play, Othello’s obsession with Desdemona’s “unloyalty” is so overwhelming that he sees killing her the only way to achieve “justice.” He is angry when she denies any wrongdoing because “thou…makest me call what I intend to do / A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.” However, Othello’s imagery is somewhat contradictory, compounded of both love and the desire to damn evil. Desdemona’s skin is “smooth as monumental alabaster,” she is “rose,” and her “balmy breath,” almost persuades him to abandon his act. However, his jealousy, mistrust and pride in Iago all cause him to put his love a side.
Like Hamlet and King Lear, Othello realizes too late that his fate is to become the instrument of his own destruction; “An honorable murderer if you will: / For nought did I in hate, but all in honour.”
The end of the play reflects on all of the eponymous protagonist’s high and low points. There is a sad irony in the fact that Othello, the great soldier is now reduced to a failed attempt on the ‘notorious villain’ Iago’s life; a sad end to his illustrious career.
Montano and Gratiano had previously treated Othello with respect; however their treatment of Othello suggests that the tragic hero has been reduced to the status of base villain. Montano and Gratiano treat him like a common criminal: ‘let him not pass/ but kill him rather.’ Gratiano evokes that Othello, like Iago will be punished by the state, ‘Thou hast no weapon, and perforce must suffer.’ The disarming of Othello is symbolic. Here Othello is reduced to a nonentity; he is no longer a husband, and now the Venetians have taken his weapon he is no longer a soldier. In this scene Othello has been physically as well as mentally degraded, by others. This is fitting given his crime. But we also see that Shakespeare means to rehabilitate the tragic protagonist. Othello now rises above Emilia and the Venetians’ reductive versions of him because he readjusts his perception of himself.
Othello now begins to redeem himself. Firstly, Othello’s vehement desire to be punished (rather than run away from the consequences of his actions as Iago does) goes in his favour; he clearly feels that he deserves not just punishment, but torture: ‘Whip me, ye devils’ he begs, ‘Blow me about in the winds, roast me in sulphur/ wash me down in steep-gulfs of liquid fire!’ Othello feels that he deserves to suffer the torments of hell for killing Desdemona.
It could be depicted that these lines prove that Othello knows he is damned, and his despair-‘Let it all go’- can also be interpreted as sinful. Due to these facts, we may doubt Othello’s conception of himself as honourable at this moment, but not for long. His question proves that he recognises his wife’s honour, not his own and when we realise Othello has “another weapon in this chamber,” we know that he will use it on himself, and inflict the punishment he deserves in an act of an honourable suicide.
Othello is lost: he has no wife or profession to sustain him. It is significant that he now prepares to use the weapon he has used to kill others on himself: he takes control of his own fate as he used to determine the fates of enemies. The hero sees himself in a new and reduced light. He speaks of his ‘little arm’ and describes the ‘impediments’ he has made his way through on the battlefield not so much to boast, but to show that he knows he is diminished. Other lines suggest this too; he is as he says at his “journey’s end”. This phrase suggests Othello’s weariness, as does the line, “but a rush against Othello’s breast” and he dies declaring his love for Desdemona with a kiss. Othello’s suicide maybe interpreted as the only courageous soldierly option open to him, or that in his despair he escapes into death because his spirit is broken.
In his death Othello seems to regain some of his earlier nobility and regains a clearer, saner perspective on the word, only when it is too late.