Othello as a tragic hero
The tragic hero’s downfall, said Aristotle, in the Poetics, was brought upon not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement. Aristotle’s theory is not the final word on tragedy, but it happens, can usefully point to what is going on in Othello. This tragic ‘flaw’ has sometimes been incorrectly interpreted in moral terms, and some critics have looked for some moral weakness in the tragic hero. For Othello, this has led to the commonplace assertion that Othello falls because he was too jealous—hence the arguments about whether he was naturally or racially prone to jealousy or easily made jealous. But this is to miss Aristotle’s points. Obviously Othello becomes jealous, but we can defectively avoid the argument about whether he was naturally jealous or not by looking for error of judgement rather than moral flaw. The same may be said about the debate concerning Othello’s ‘nobility’. Up to the beginning of this century there seems to have been general agreement among the best and the most influential Shakespeare critics that the description of Othello as ‘noble’, repeated several times in the play is an accurate assessment of his character. A.C. Bradley’s estimate of Othello’s character is an impressive and idealizing instance of this interpretation. His Othello is a truly admirable character, of heroic stature, exemplary, self-controlled and wonderful imagination. On the other hand, F.R. Leavis, in a violent reaction to this view, presents an Othello who has no real confidence in Desdemona, reacts with astonishing promptness to Iago’s insinuations and idealizes himself in the end on a heroic martyr. Such a reading really boils down to reducing the play to a tragedy of jealousy. Modern variants of this interpretation see the play as the tragedy of marriage based on the spouses’ complete ignorance of each other.
Othello’s downfall may be said to be a result of racial prejudice. That might accord with current responses and would not be inappropriate in Shakespeare’s times. But Othello’s colour can hardly be said to be an error of judgement on his part. His fall is not prompted by colour or racial attitudes though there can be little doubt that both intensify the conflict for him and for us. Nevertheless, Othello’s colour sets him virtually apart from all other characters on the stage and gives him a certain ambivalence. He is not Venetian and not typical of the activity by which
Othello’s colour makes him an outsider in a community in which he has lately entered. But his sincerity and braveness are widely acknowledged, and even Iago does not question these traits of Othello’s character. If Moor was intended to jealous, the play would have been dangerously near to a comedy of the cuckolded husband. Such a reading is, of course, contradicted by the whole tone of the play. We feel that Othello’s love is as sincere as it is vulnerable, that he is corrupted into a state of pervasive and brutal jealousy. Yet the impression of genuine affection, integrity and dignity are not quite wiped out. The dramatist does not invite us to speculate on the psychological basis of Othello’s love and its corruptibility he is far more interested in the tragic experience of the man who believes himself to be a fundamentally deceived in his wholehearted love. Othello’s love, affection may well be founded on an insufficient knowledge of Desdemona, but it is above all even more so than Romeo’s love, or sincere, basically unselfish and humane feeling, an act of faith, trust and dedication. Iago’s intrigues deliberately destroy an ideal on which Othello has staked his entire existence.
The emphasis on Othello as an outsider helps us to appreciate the unique value of what stands for. His commitment to love is total, he takes his love as an ideal and when his faith in that love is shaken, his “occupation is gone”. This also suggests that to some extent the seeds of final tragic outcome are already presented in the tragic hero and his situation. Far from “cheering himself up” in his last soliloquy, as T.S. Eliot apparently thought, Othello is right in saying that he “loved not wisely but too well”. Othello’s world is serious, heroic masculine world of combat and high adventure. As he himself recognizes, he is not at home in the sophisticated society of