2. Othello-A Typical Shakespearean Tragedy



The true definition of a true tragedy is difficult to explain. In all the ages, critics have tried to explain the nature of a true tragedy but the most accepted and preferred concept of tragedy was given by Aristotle. He says: “A tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament…. in the form of action, not narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, and has as its goal a catharsis of emotions.” Although Shakespeare was not fully aware of concept about tragedy, still from his tragic master-pieces, we can easily gather an idea about the notion on what basis Shakespeare wrote his tragedies. Dowden believes: “Shakespeare conceives tragedies as concerned with the ruin or restoration of the life or soul of a man.” Similarly, another critic believes: “A Shakespearean tragedy is the apotheosis of the soul of man.” Another critic comes forward and comments: “A Shakespearean tragedy is a tale of suffering and calamity conducting to death.” However, one thing is worth mentioning that a Shakespearean tragedy is unique and exemplary in its own way. Now let’s study the qualities of Shakespearean tragedy one by one.

First, major quality of Shakespearean tragedy is that its tragic hero is a towering personality towering above the other characters as we also see in Marlowe’s plays. The major quality of Shakespeare’s heroes is their main concern for something or some aspect of life. Macbeth with intense poetic nature is honest enough to view his flaws. Othello, for all his dignity and massive calm, is by nature full of the most vehement passion. Another quality of his heroes is their sensitivity and poetic temperament. Hamlet and Othello can be quoted in this context. Hamlet is intellectual while Othello is poetic. All the heroes introduced by Shakespeare have another quality. They belong to the highest rung of society. However, Othello does not fulfill this requirement but he is also at least a general whose descent may be traced to kings. Despite his rough past, he is an honourable past hero and the general of Venetian Army. In all these tragedies, we find the heroes making a moral choice of some serious action or initiating some action which has far-reaching consequences. Othello

Second major quality of Shakespearean tragedy is tragic flaws found in the personality of his heroes. The participation of the environment, chance and coincidence also plays its role in making a tragedy. Sometimes, the role of supernatural notably for Macbeth can never be ignored. All the heroes have some flaw which is the basic cause of their destruction and tragedy. It may not be a flaw rather it may also be some particular situation leading to the disaster of a hero. The tragedy of Hamlet is due to his irresolution. He follows the policy of “To be or not to be” and always ruminates over the consequences before taking some step. Othello was also in a situation where he should have taken some step after great contemplation but his precipitateness of action led him to a tragic end. He believes in what Iago creates in his mind and mistrusts his wife. In the end, he has to face repentance. Bradley says: “Othello’s anger has passed, and his sorrow has taken its place.”

Thirdly, a Shakespearean tragedy portrays the sufferings, trials and tribulations of a tragic hero. It fosters the feelings of sympathy and fear in the minds of the readers. It also has a sense of suffering and dejection. Sometimes, it causes the death of a hero. however, a Shakespearean tragedy does not remain futile in creating the impact on the minds of the readers. We can say that it has a powerful impact. In the end, we see Shakespearean tragedy restoring a man’s faith in man’s greatness. It also restores a man’s faith in God’s sagacity. This discussion clearly shows that the tragedies introduced by Shakespeare have the element of optimism. Hamlet is the best example to prove this element. Hamlet is grieved at the death of his father and his mother’s hasty marriage.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable

                              Seems to me all the uses of this world.

Similarly, Othello with his evil spirit of jealousy and the habit of trusting others like Iago ruins his life after killing his beloved Desdemona. In so far as catharsis in Othello is concerned, the words spoken by Othello clearly meet this requirement and foster the feelings of pity and fear in the minds of the reader. He says: “Desdemon, Dead!” The use of affectionate word of “Desdemon” suggests authenticity and adds poignancy. Bradley says: “His sufferings are so heart rendering that he stirs, in most of the readers, a passion of mingled love and passion.

Fourthly, a Shakespearean tragedy has also touches of melodrama. This touch fosters the feelings of terror. All the heroes introduced by Shakespeare have the tinges of melodramatic elements. Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet can be quoted in this regard.

Fifth major quality of Shakespearean tragedy is that he employs supernatural machinery in his tragedies. He introduces fairies in “The Tempest” and “The Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” and the ghost in “Hamlet” and “Julies Caesar.” However, they can never be taken as the starting point of the tragedies. They participate in a play when the play takes some definite course. In Othello, the incident of “Handkerchief” is the best example of it. This incident is a pure chance and it is the villain who exploits it but this chance takes place at a time when the feelings of “Jealousy” are already present in the mind of Othello. A critic observes: “Of all the tragedies of Shakespeare, Othello stands out prominently as the one in which the role of chance and accident is the largest.” In Macbeth, we see three witches giving an outward shape to a “Vaulting ambition” but it has already taken firm roots in the mind of Macbeth.

Sixth major feature of a Shakespearean tragedy is that it has always a well-defined and sublime theme which has the ability to be expressed in moral terms. The major theme of King Lear is “Regeneration.” The theme of Othello is “The making of moral choice.” The theme of Hamlet is “to be or not to be.” In so far as the tragic action in a Shakespearean tragedy is concerned, it is a two-fold conflict. One is between man and the universal forces and the second is in the mind of man. However, of these two, the latter is the first and foremost preference of Shakespeare. In Hamlet, the internal conflict is shown through the soliloquies of Hamlet but external conflict is found between Hamlet and Claudius and Hamlet and Laertes. Similarly in Othello, External conflict in Othello is very obvious when we see Brabantio making the accusation that Desdemona may cheat Othello as she has already thrown dust in her father’s eyes.

“Look to her, Moore, if though hast eyes to see:

She has deceived her father, and may thee.”

The internal conflict in Othello becomes crystal clear when we see Othello convincing himself that killing Desdemona is the right thing to do it. He believes that if he does not kill her, she will cheat more men. He believes that he is killing her for the “Cause”, not out of anger. “It is the cause, it is the cause.

Seventhly, in so far as the characterization is concerned, in a Shakespearean tragedy the tragic hero is the center of the writer’s attention. But at least some other character is also portrayed into the lime-light and finds adequate attention with that of the protagonist. In Othello, Othello is the protagonist, while Iago is also a villain who has won great applause like Milton’s Satan in the world of English Literature. No doubt, all the protagonists are tragic but with them, Shakespeare has portrayed feminine characters who have won considerable acclamation and attention of the readers. These immortal characters are Desdemona, Cordelia, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. Even minor characters have been drawn skillfully although they appear for a very short period of time. Brabantio is the best example of it. In so far as the use of pure humour in tragedies is concerned, Shakespeare believed: “Life is blend of pleasure and sadness.” That’s why, even in his great tragedies, he introduced comic scenes through comic characters for the relaxation in tense situations. We get wonderful examples of Porter in Macbeth and the Fool in King Lear. In Othello, a clown has been introduced. All the tragedies by Shakespeare have also villains who are well-delineated. Iago is the most interesting of all the villains only because of his note of mystery about his personality and goals. He says: “I am not what I am.” It is also the specialty of a Shakespearean villain that he repents after committing the wrong doings. As a critic remarks: “It is the one tragedy of Shakespeare which is as remarkable for its villain as for its hero.

Eighth important characteristic of Shakespearean tragedy is “Character is destiny.” The tragic flaw of a hero and the fate combine with each other and cause the tragic demise of a hero. In Hamlet, we observe Hamlet’s fall and death by becoming a victim to this fate which ensures his death at the hands of Laertes. Hamlet’s fate however is revealed through a ghost who assigns him the duty of killing his father’s murderer. It is fate that offers him a situation in which he is quite helpless to take any step to kill the murderer of his father. In Othello, a Venetian General suffering from his internal and external complexes is put into a situation where he is faced with the solution of killing his wife.

Ninth major quality of a Shakespearean tragedy is that the hero in the end realizes truth of which he has been ignorant as Aristotle says “a change from ignorance to knowledge.” Othello’s emotional journey is his change from a man of strong, resilient and military leader to a misguided murderer, carried along by the effects of love, jealousy and ignorance. Thus in the end, this journey of Othello’s emotions ends on his suicide. In Macbeth, we observe Lady Macbeth having feelings of remorse and repentance after helping in killing the king. In Hamlet, we see Claudius repenting after killing his brother.

Last major characteristic of Shakespearean heroes is that when they suffer, the element of good is wasted. Othello with a great repute is unable to tackle the situation, kills his wife, commits suicide in the end and the element of goodness is wasted.

To sum up, we can say without any hesitation and fear of contradiction that Othello as a tragedy seems inferior to other great tragedies of Shakespeare, though it is perhaps dramatically the greatest of them. It lacks the depth of Hamlet, the overwhelming power of King Lear, the atmosphere prevailing in Macbeth and the range in time which is the distinguishing point of all the four tragedies but its grip on the emotions of the audience is more relentless and sustained than that of the others. This is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays which resembles domestic tragedy.