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Othello as a tragic hero
To what extent does Othello represent the idea of the tragic hero?
The ‘Poetics’ of Aristotle are extremely significant when distinguishing the
characteristics of tragedy, and particularly important when analysing the character of
Othello as a tragic hero. Aristotle writes that there are certain qualities which define a
tragic hero: peripeteia, the undergoing of a downfall; hamartia, evidence of a fatal flaw;
anagnorisis, recognition of these flaws; and catharsis, the purging of emotions from the
There has been much debate over the subject of Othello as a tragic hero, and over the
last century the views of two critics have been particularly influential. A. C. Bradley#
states that Othello is Shakespeare’s most romantic character, whose nature remains noble
throughout, whereas F. R. Leavis# disagrees, arguing that Othello was never noble to
begin with, and gives in too easy to the manipulations of Iago.
When considering Othello as a tragic hero, there has been a lot of discussion over
whether his character undergoes peripeteia. A. C. Bradley believes that Othello “has
played the hero and borne a charmed life” and describes him as “a great man…
conscious of his own worth”. For me, Othello’s nobility is unmistakable from the
constant references made to him as “Valiant Othello” (I.iii.49) by the majority of the
other characters. He is evidently well respected and looked up to, and therefore must
possess an element of decency.
This heroic and noble understanding of Othello is reinforced when Shakespeare
compares him with Christ when “Brabantio, Roderigo, with Officers and torches and
weapons” (I.ii.54) enter the second scene of Act 1. This action vividly echoes the Gospel
when Christ and his followers are met by officers carrying swords and torches. This same
comparison can be made when Othello avoids any physical attack telling the opposition
to “Keep up [their] bright swords, for the dew will rust / them” (I.ii.59), perhaps
mirroring Christ’s words, ‘Put up thy sword into the sheath’ from the Gospel.
Shakespeare therefore perhaps makes this connection between an idolised figure and
Othello, emphasising these positive qualities about him and adding credibility to
F. R. Leavis considers Othello much more negatively; he believes that he gives in
too easily to Iago’s manipulations. Bradley’s argument is that “it was no sign of stupidity
in Othello” to place his trust in Iago, and “it would have been quite unnatural in him to
be unmoved by the warnings of so honest a friend”, claiming that everyone trusted Iago
and so it is unfair to blame Othello wholly for his actions. This is recognisable from the
Play: Roderigo, Cassio and Emilia are prime examples of characters also under Iago’s
selfish manipulation, and the words “honest Iago” are uttered continuously by the
majority of the characters throughout the play, not just by Othello, emphasising this
Othello himself notices his nobility, apparent when he says, “My parts, my title and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly” (I.ii.31). This supports the proud and strong nature Bradley perceives in him. In contrast, F. R. Leavis believes that this conveys an arrogant and sacrilegious quality, however for me, this negative characteristic is dominated by Othello’s dignity. Leavis also comments on his “noble egotism”, believing that Othello has a negative element of “self- approving self-dramatization” throughout the play, suggesting that he does not undergo a downfall as he didn’t possess heroic qualities to begin with.
A. C. Bradley claims that at the end of the play “the Othello of the Council-chamber
and the quay of Cyprus has returned, or a greater and nobler Othello still” conveying a
belief, like F. R. Leavis, that Othello does not undergo a downfall, however in contrast,
he suggests that Othello remains noble throughout and is perhaps even more so by the end of the play. To a certain extent, this statement is understandable, as the other characters do not blame Othello in the end for his actions taken against Desdemona, and refer to him passionately as a man who was “great of heart” (V.ii.358), still believing entirely in his nobility. However, for me, this is exaggerated, as although Othello was clearly manipulated by Iago and therefore not necessarily to blame, for a man of such calmness at the beginning of the play, his actions in Act 5 demonstrate a definite downfall in his persona; the contrast between the Othello we meet in the first act, and the Othello in the fifth is almost disturbing. His relaxed and sensible character is demonstrated on our first meeting with Othello, when he calmly tells Brabantio and his followers to “Hold [their] hands” and claims that “Were it [his] cue to fight, [he] should have known it / Without any prompter” (I.ii.83-84) keeping a difficult situation under control with dignity. Later in the fifth act, Othello harshly addresses Desdemona as a “minion” closely followed by a “strumpet” (V.i.33-34), both of which suggest him to be intensely angry, not to mention his murderous proceedings, and even after this he threatens Emilia with the words “Peace, you were best!” (V.ii.157) dramatically contrasting with earlier in the play. This anger is repeatedly evident throughout the fourth and fifth acts. Although Bradley also believes that Othello is in his fall in these later acts, he argues that “his fall is never complete.”
Whilst A. C. Bradley views him as “by far the most romantic figure among
Shakespeare’s heroes”, he does admit to flawed qualities in Othello’s character:
Othello’s mind, for all its poetry, is very simple… Emotion excites his
imagination, but confuses and dulls his intellect.
For me, this is a reasonable comment to make, as Othello appears to be quite single-
minded when he exclaims to Iago that “to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved”
(III.iii.182-183), suggesting that one moment of suspicion enforces an eternal doubt.
This is also supported by Othello’s fixed trust for Iago until the final moments of the
play, and by his certainty that Desdemona is untrustworthy, provoked only by suspicion
and paranoia. However it is perhaps evident from Othello’s words “I’ll have some proof”
(III.iii.389) that he is not as susceptible as Bradley proposes, as
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