In all tragic plays, there exists a tragic hero. Though he may die in the end, he is still known in the play as the “hero.” For example, in William Shakespeare’s Othello, the central character, Othello, can be seen as the archetypal tragic hero. All classical, Shakespearean tragic heroes follow the same criteria. At the outset, since tragedy involves the “fall” of a tragic hero, the character must have a lofty position to fall from, or else there is no tragedy, just pathos. Subsequently, through a series of influences or actions, the tragic hero must change fortune and fall from high to low estate. Finally, this fall from high to low standing must emerge because of his tragic flaw, also known as hamartia; therefore, using these criteria, we can easily classify Othello, the Moor, as a tragic hero.
First off, a tragic hero must be a person of noble stature from which they can fall. At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare illustrates Othello as a benevolent military noble who shares an intellectual love with his young wife, Desdemona, of utmost purity and innocence. His importance to the state of Venice is exemplified when Cassio arrives to tell Iago and him that the Duke is looking for Othello. Cassio states:
- … And many of the consuls, raised and met,
- Are at the Duke’s already. You have been hotly called for.
- When being not at your lodging to be found,
- The Senate hath sent about three several quests
- To search you out (I. ii. 42)
For a dignified duke to call upon Othello in the middle of the night and send three requests for his presence shows the value of Othello to Venice. Furthermore, during Act 1, Scene 3, the Duke and a few senators discuss issues around a table when Othello enters the room. As he enters, one of the senators declares, “Here comes Brabantio and the valiant Moor” (I. iii. 47). This statement, made by a respected senator, clarifies that Othello is highly venerated amongst the aristocratic members of the state of Venice. Lastly, Othello’s title in Cyprus, Governor-General, exudes an air of nobility, confidence, and strength. It defines someone who is held in tremendously high revere amidst the people of Venice. Thus, it can be seen through these examples that the Moor of Venice does boast the patrician eminence demanded by a tragic hero.
The following criterion that a tragic hero must obey is a change in kismet and fall from prominence to oblivion through a series of actions or influences. For instance, promoting Cassio to lieutenant and not Iago proved fatal to Othello. Iago, arguably the most heinous villain in Shakespeare, claims to be irate at Othello for passing him over for the position (I. i. 7-32). This proves to be a most calamitous decision, for Iago does not take the verdict lightly. Iago says to Roderigo, “I have told thee / often, and I retell thee again and again; I hate the Moor: my / cause is hearted; thine hath no less reason. Let us be / conjunctive in our revenge against him”. Because of the Moor’s decision, the vindictive Iago will put all of his efforts towards making the Moor’s life a living hell. If Othello had promoted Iago instead of Cassio to lieutenant, then the “animal” that Othello turned into at the novel’s end may never have transpired. Another example is when he strikes his wife, Desdemona, with her immense pulchritude, in the face.
Lodovico, one of Brabanzio’s kinsmen, is appalled and flabbergasted at what had befallen. He exclaims politely, “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, / Though I should swear I saw. ‘Tis very much. / Make her amends; she weeps.” (IV. i. 242). Lodovico speaks reprovingly and reprehensibly to Othello and no longer holds the same approbation for him as he once did. In addition, the trust that Othello places in the words of Iago is far too ponderous. He is so credulous that he believes every piece of information that Iago feeds him to be indubitable. One example of this is when Iago informs the Moor that while Cassio and Iago were sharing a bed, Cassio called out Desdemona’s name in his sleep, wrung Iago’s hand, kissed him hard on the lips, and threw his leg over Iago’s thigh. This story enrages Othello and consumes him with jealousy. Othello asks that Iago murder Cassio within three days.
The once imperial general of the Venetian army is now ordering the execution of the former members of his division. Where’s the sublimity in that? These actions and encouragements are the sources of Othello’s plummet from exaltation to obscurity. Thirdly, the tragic hero must possess a tragic flaw, which causes his downfall. It is what every protagonist must have to be a true “hero.” In Othello, the Moor’s tragic flaw is not actually a defect in itself but rather an excess of virtue. In Othello’s case, his excess confidence in his ensign, Iago leads to his bane. Iago perpetuates the play’s tragedy by provoking the interior opposing force, or the hamartia of the protagonist. Near the beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s clever demonstration of dramatic irony allows the reader to realize Othello’s tragic flaw in that he hands his full trust over to a man who is “Janus-faced” and unctuous.
Othello says, “…my ancient; a man he is of honesty and credence. To this conveyance I assign my wife” (I. iii. 278). This exemplar portrays how much conviction Othello had in a man that is trying to ruin him, and because of this reliance, he succeeds in doing so. Secondly, the Moor does not doubt any information that Iago provides him with. Everything he says is believed to be veridical by the Moor. In fact, when Iago provides “ocular” proof demonstrating that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair, Othello does not doubt it at all. Even though all the information is circumstantial and may not be authentic, Othello never suspects it to be apocryphal. This lack of insight leads to his destruction. In the end, throughout the play, Othello continuously calls Iago “honest Iago.”
This expression recurs over ten times in the play. Shakespeare uses this phrase to show how much trust Othello has in Iago that the Moor thinks Iago would do anything to gratify him. Unfortunately, this trust allowed Iago to penetrate the mind of Othello and guide him to his devastation. From this blemish in the character of Othello, we can deduce that he retains the tragic flaw that tragic heroes must feature. In conclusion, Othello follows all the criteria of a tragic hero and is, therefore, a tragic hero. Othello is someone of posh standing and undergoes an alteration of fortune attributed to a flaw in his character through a series of actions and persuasions.