Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Othello: An Aristotelian Tragedy

Shakespeare matches Aristotle’s concise blueprint in his play, Othello. This dramatic tragedy directly follows Aristotle's Poetics because it contains all the integral pieces outlined by the philosopher: 

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that

which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well

constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles." (Aristotle, Poetics 7).

Shakespeare follows this precise arrangement of parts to tell his story of Othello as it contains a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The plot of Othello is a tale of love, jealousy, and betrayal. The play is plot-driven; it focuses on the smallest cast of characters that Shakespeare had ever used. It also has very few distractions from the main plot utilizing only a few themes such as jealousy and pride. Because of these Aristotelian traits it is one of the most intense and focused plays that Shakespeare wrote.

 Othello clings closely to its story while introducing an intriguing new nuance at every moment and this keeps the audience riveted to following the progression of Othello’s journey. This element of dramatic tension is essential in a successful tragedy. The play follows each of these steps while introducing a new question every moment that keeps our interest.  That is called dramatic tension, a very important part of a tragedy: to keep the audience’s attention at all times.

 “Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents

and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy....” (Poetics 6).

            In order for any of these elements to exist in a tragic play there must be characters that play a part in the dramatic action. For Aristotle, the characters have to be as complex as the plot. He spells this attribute out when he writes “Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song” (Poetics 6).

In addition to crafting a very complex plot Shakespeare also manufactures a main character that meets the demands. In the beginning of the play, Shakespeare illustrates the character of Othello as a kind-hearted military nobleman who has a love for his wife, Desdemona that any woman would envy. Their marriage is the epitome of what true love should be; it has intellectual as well as physical attraction, purity, and an innocence that fits with Othello’s weakness.

In this tragic hero’s case his tragic flaw is that he is trusting and gullible. This “defect” causes Othello’s character to quickly start to diminish because of his growing jealousy. The tragic change in Othello’s good character into one that causes horrific death and terror clearly follows what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote:

“There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty” ( Poetics 13).

 This excerpt from Aristotle’s Poetics unveils what is the very essence of tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Othello it is the play’s namesake that is the “tragic hero” because of his trusting nature; Othello is susceptible to the play’s villain, Iago’s, deception.

 Diction was also a necessity in a successful tragedy. This means that the play should be written in high decorative language in order to let the audience know that what they are witnessing is very serious. This is also known as “Dramatic Irony” which serves as a device to let the audiences know something that the characters on stage do not. Shakespeare’s ingenious use of dramatic irony clues the observers in to Othello’s tragic flaw that allows him to trust Iago implicitly. The audience knows that Iago is in collusion with Roderigo to ruin Othello, but the trusting nature of Othello blinds him to any sort of conspiracy; especially by people that he considers to be his friends. This excess of virtuous trust becomes his lethal undoing

At a turning point in the play where he is tortured with disbelief and images in his mind, the usually collected and brave Othello is seen withering both physically and emotionally at the mercy of Iago. Aristotle states that the noble and complete action must be an imitation of fearful and pitiable incidents.

“Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also

result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way,

and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed

that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will

thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place" (Poetics 14)

Othello finally breaks when Iago takes a hardy jab at his gullible prey by telling Othello that the proof of the imaginary affair is Desdemona’s handkerchief being found in Cassio’s bedchamber. Although Iago had Roderigo steal the handkerchief and place it there; Othello completely collapses into the trap. “Lie on her? ...Zounds! ...Noses, ears, and lips? Is’t possible? -Confess? -Handkerchief-O devil!” (Othello, IV, I, 30-35, 111-112).

After the unfounded and horrifyingly bloody murder of Desdemona; Othello realizes that he has destroyed the person that he loved and was supposed to trust. As he lets the terrible act sink in he is destroyed when Iago’s deception is uncovered. There is no shred of life left for him without his beloved wife so Othello begins his spiral onto a suicidal path of damnation, “O cursed, cursed slave! Whip me, ye devils, from the possession of the heavenly sight! Blow me about the winds! roast me in sulphur! ...O Desdemona, Desdemona Dead! O! O! O!” (Othello, V, II, 275-281, 155-56).

His last speech reveals his former flawed self that allowed him to be led foolishly down the path to the edge of the emotional abyss at which he now stands. Othello’s dark last words before he takes his own life are chilling and ironic; “speak of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well; of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplex’d in an extreme....” (Othello, V, II, 342-345,158).

The end has come as dictated by Aristotle, written by Shakespeare, and carried out by the tragic hero. Shakespeare does not just write a mere tragic literary work; he masters the art of creating an Aristotelian work of tragedy in Othello.





Works Cited



Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Welcome to Philosophy on the EServer. Web. October 3, 2011. ‹ http://philosophy.eserver.org/aristotle/poetics.txt›.

Shakespeare, William. Othello, The Moor of Venice. Ed. William J. Rolfe, Litt.D.  New York, Cincinnati, Chicago: American Book Company, 1905.


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