‘A guy’s character is his fate.’ To what extent is Othello’s own character the cause of his downfall? According to Aristotle’s Poetics, a classical tragic hero must be renowned and thriving, superior in some particular method, so that the reversal of fortunes or downfall, stirs up feelings within the audience of a higher strength. Such disastrous results are often triggered by the mistake of the terrible hero due to their tragic flaw or hamartia, which is frequently linked to hubris or excessive pride.
In Shakespeare’s Othello, as a General of the Venetian army, Othello fulfills these criteria, as his error is to trust ‘truthful Iago’ and convince himself that revenge upon Desdemona will cause honour and success. In fact, just like many tragic heroes, it is this choice which results in his destruction. However, it is necessary to think about whether Othello’s mess up was the unavoidable outcome of the defects in his character or whether there were other forces, beyond his control, which led him to his doom.
If it is exclusively Othello’s hamartia which leads to his failure, then it should be related to the change in his perception of Desdemona. In Act 1, when cautioned by Brabantio that Desdemona might also trick Othello, Othello retorts passionately: ‘My life upon her faith!’ The exclamation here demonstrates the commitment and trust that Othello feels towards his new wife, but by Act 3, Othello is currently starting to doubt her: ‘By the world,/ I believe my other half by truthful, and I think she is not’ (3. 3. 389).
Shakespeare’s usage of cosmic imagery when Othello swears highlights the magnitude of Othello’s bitterness at his own hesitation, as his judgement is normally spontaneous, as in Aleppo, (5. 2. 361) when he understood right away to ‘smote him thus’, as he was certain of his enemy, however in this case, doubt has actually hindered his vision and he is unsure who to trust: his new wife or ‘honest Iago’. Othello’s peripeteia happens when he decides to rely on Iago; nevertheless, the audience are surprised at this choice, as it is uncertain what has actually altered his perception of Desdemona so that he condemns her as ‘that cunning slut of Venice’ (4. 88). Some critics believe that it is jealousy that has actually clouded his judgement hence, and argue that this must be his hamartia. Nevertheless, it is similarly possible that Shakespeare has offered Othello the ‘physical fitness of character’ that Aristotle specified was a crucial feature of an awful hero, as his real hamartia may be his value of the honour-shame culture which existed amongst European Elizabethan warriors, and is linked to the hubris common in tragic heroes.
It can be argued that the shame induced by the concept of his wife’s unfaithfulness leads to his failure, which Shakespeare expresses through animalistic imagery: ‘I had rather be a toad/ And live upon the vapour of a dungeon/ Than keep a corner in the important things I like/ For others’ uses’. For that reason, Desdemona’s murder ends up being an act of sacrificial love: ‘A murder which I believed a sacrifice’ (5. 2. 64) as he feels that ‘else she’ll betray more guys. Maybe it is for this factor that, in his death scene, Othello says: ‘For nothing I carried out in hate, however all in honour’ (5. 2. 301) and calls himself ‘An honourable murderer’. In either case, possible defects like these suggest that Othello’s failure was his own doing as such traits may have driven him to rely on Iago and murder Desdemona, actions which in his anagnorisis resulted in severe suffering, and triggered him to devote suicide. Additionally, Othello’s impulsive and enthusiastic nature could likewise have added to his failure, as this may have been his hamartia.
This would fit the essential ‘consistency’ described by Aristotle, as the exact same enthusiasm and instantaneous action can be discovered in his reaction to Brabantio in scene 1 as in the later scenes, in his instant reaction to Iago’s suggestive declarations. In the beginning Othello responds calmly: ‘Why dost thou ask? ‘But the more evasive Iago is of such questions, the more it riles Othello and Shakespeare utilizes cosmic imagery when Othello swears such as ‘By heaven, I’ll know thy ideas’ to show the worth that Othello assigns to Iago’s viewpoints.
When Iago eventually suggests that Desdemona is unethical, Othello trusts Iago to ‘Offer [him] the ocular evidence’ (3. 3. 361), and some critics may argue that this rash choice to trust Iago is proof that Othello is impulsive, causing him to make absurd decisions. It is for this factor that he accepts Iago’s story of Cassio’s dream as the ‘ocular proof’ although Iago confesses “Tis a wise doubt, though it be however a dream’; Othello right away responds: ‘I’ll tear her all to pieces!’ (3. 3. 433).
Shakespeare then uses dark and malignant images to reveal Othello’s enthusiastic rage with expressions such as ‘Arise black vengeance’ and ‘tyrannous hate!’ Such images would have been substantial to an Elizabethan audience, as they considered the colour white to symbolise pureness and goodness, whereas black had strong undertones of the devil, wicked and uncleanness, hence highlighting the wickedness in Othello’s disposition. Therefore, this can be utilized as proof that Othello was just persuaded by
Iago’s improbable ideas because he was led by passion and impulse, being ‘Perplexed in the extreme’ by rage, intuitively trusting Iago. The concept of blood that Shakespeare consists of supports this: ‘O, blood, blood, blood!’ (3. 3. 452) as it has connotations of violence, therefore foreshadowing the violence of the final act, in which the theme is duplicated by Desdemona: ‘Some bloody enthusiasm shakes your very frame’ revealing the connection in between Othello’s hamartia and Desdemona’s murder.
On the other hand, it can be argued that Othello’s failure was not his own doing. In Act 3 scene 3, Shakespeare first recommends that Othello genuinely doubts Desdemona when he states, ‘And yet how nature erring from itself-‘ (3. 3. 229) since he thinks that being white, Desdemona would choose a white guy like Cassio to himself. Such racial insecurities are highlighted in Othello’s character throughout the play, and may be the reason behind the discomforts that he takes to impress people through his speech and experiences.
Nevertheless this line indicates that Othello’s doubt in Desdemona were the outcome of racial insecurities, and whilst they could be singular to him, the prejudices that existed against ‘Moors’ in the Elizabethan age, and in the play suggest otherwise. Queen Elizabeth grumbled in 1601 of the “multitudes of Negars and Blackamoors which are sneaked into this world,” 1 a sensation also revealed in the play when Othello is condemned as an ‘old black ram’ (1. 1. 89) and a ‘Barbary horse’ (1. 1. 111). Such animalistic metaphors stress the low viewpoint that Elizabethans had of ‘Blackamoors’, which might have been the root of Othello’s downfall.
Similarly, the unconventionality of Othello’s marital relationship to Desdemona rebelled against Elizabethan ideology, being ‘contrary to nature’ as critic Karen Newman put it, which presented a challenge in itself. Their marriage broke the natural order causing mayhem and subsequently, as in the majority of disasters, this disorderly force had to be damaged for order to be brought back. Such perfects may be proof that the couple’s mess up was inevitable, as to an Elizabethan audience, they symbolised the abnormal, disorderly force which should be toppled.
Alternatively, it is equally possible that although Othello had lots of flaws, it was Iago who functioned as a driver by exposing them, thus causing Othello’s failure. Shakespeare frequently alludes to this through repeating motifs which show Iago’s power of corruption, the very first of these being toxin. For instance, when outlining, Iago describes toxin when he states: ‘I’ll put plague into his ear’ (2. 3. 346), and then in the final scene, Lodovico summarises the 3 corpses as ‘toxins sight’, therefore demonstrating the link between Iago’s adjustment and the predicament of Othello and those around him.
Shakespeare builds upon this adjustment through the theme of turning, as Iago swears to ‘turn her virtue into pitch’ (2. 3. 350), in the very same way that Othello turns ‘Turk’ through the metaphor in his last speech, ‘an turbaned Turk … traduced the state … And smote him thus’ (5. 2. 349-52), and is proof of Iago’s success in turning Othello from a General into an enemy of ‘the state’. Likewise, the black and white imagery of ‘virtue’ and ‘pitch’ is repeated by Othello himself when referring to Desdemona’s credibility: ‘begrimed and black/As mine own face. Nevertheless, ‘begrimed’ indicates that both characters are stained, but as Desdemona is innocent, and Othello’s inherited ethnicity determines his skin colour, the simile could associate with Iago’s adjustment, and the darkness that he has brought upon the couple. This is mirrored by the improvement of Othello’s language: previously grand verse depicting his former successes becomes sinister and dark, with animalistic images of goats, monkeys, toads, and harmful snakes, and diabolic metaphors for Desdemona such as ‘reasonable devil’, which liken his language to that of Iago.
These modifications are evidence of the essential function of Iago in Othello’s downfall, recommending that Othello’s flaws, although various, might not have been deadly. It is for this reason that the expression ‘Perplexed in the severe’ in Othello’s final soliloquy, can take on a double meaning, as although Othello’s enthusiastic feelings of jealousy, rage, and embarassment clouded his judgement, Iago’s capability to manipulate, which Shakespeare has stressed through his use of repeated concepts and imagery, might have been the other crucial factor.
It was this combination that affected Othello to make the fatal and mistaken decision that Iago’s suspicions were appropriate and think that his honour would be gained back if he took vengeance upon Desdemona. Iago was only effective due to the fact that of Othello’s covert defects, however equally Othello’s defects were deeply buried within him, allowing him to end up being a General of the Venetian army, proving that they were not deadly, but excited by expert manipulators like Iago. 1584 words Bibliography – 1 = http://www. suite101. om/content/elizabeth-i-motives-for-expulsion-of-blackamoors-from-london-a248507 – A. C. Bradley (1904) Shakespearian Disaster, New York City: Palgrave Macmillan – Beard & & Kent (2008) AQA AS English Literature B, Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes – Marian Cox (2003) AS/ A-Level Student Text Guide, Othello, William Shakespeare Oxfordshire: Phillip Allan Updates – http://www2. cnr. edu/home/bmcmanus/ poetics. html – http://www. britaininprint. net/shakespeare/study _ tools/race. html – William Shakespeare (2003) Othello Edited by Norman Sanders Cambridge: Cambridge University Press