Othello The Greatest Shakespearean Tragedy
A Shakespearean tragedy is one that encompasses many different elements. Shakespeare presents all of these elements spectacularly in Othello. For a tragedy to occur there are five conditions. The protagonist, Othello in this case, must experience a death or a total loss of ranking in society. The audience must also be captured by the actors and feel some sort of connection to them. This is known as catharsis. In Shakespearean tragedies the protagonist always has a character defect or a tragic flaw. This tragic flaw along with pride will cause the protagonist to make an error in judgement leading him to his downfall and eventual death. These two elements are called hubris and
hamartia. The unities of time, space, and action must also be followed. This means that the play must take place in a very short period of time, occur in one general area, and follow one main character throughout the play. Shakespeare orates for us a tragic occurrence in the life of a man who once had it all, throws it all away in a fit of jealous rage .
The downfall of the central character is the main concept of the tragedy. Without the main character’s downfall there is no reason for the reader to feel pity, therefore, no tragedy. The downfall of the protagonist in Shakespearean tragedies always originates from their tragic flaw. Othello’s tragic flaw is his jealousy, which Iago constantly reminds him about. This is first brought about in act III, scene 3 when Iago asks Othello if he has “Seen a handkerchief spotted with strawberries… did I today see Cassio wipe his beard with” (III, 3, 431-432/435-436). At this point Othello is jealous at Cassio for having won the heart of Desdemona and earned the handkerchief. Upon hearing this Othello flies into a mad fit by saying “O, that the slave had forty thousand lives!” (III, 3, 439). By his jealousy Othello makes himself very prone to many attacks on him by Iago.
Catharsis is the part of the play that moves the audience and attempts to put them in the actor’s shoes. Shakespeare does this by attacking the issue of love. It is a very touchy and emotional subject. Anyone who has ever fallen in love can relate to Othello and Desdemona. They are viewed as the perfect newly-weds who have each other as compliments. Desdemona shows us this by protesting to the Duke and her father that she “saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honor and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (I, 3, 247-249). The love between her and Othello is one of great passion and breaking barriers. They were many years apart, came from different races, and were different colors of skin, something that was unheard of in their time. Obstacles such as these, even in our day, are very difficult to overcome. When reading or watching Othello being performed one cannot help but to feel envy for the love they have. In this tragedy, catharsis presents something the audience cannot avoid.
Hubris and Hamartia are two components of a Shakespearean tragedy that are very much intertwined because of their basis on pride. Hubris is when the protagonist is consumed with pride and believes that fate can be beaten. Evidence of Othello’s pride is based on the thought, “No one messes around with Othello!” This becomes his eventual downfall. The reader remembers in act III, scene 3 when Iago had planted false evidence of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness; Othello reacted in a very calm way, mostly in disbelief. In act IV, scene 1 when Iago brings more evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity Othello reacts in a very different and violent way. “Let her rot, and perish, and be damned
tonight; for she shall not live” (IV, 1, 183-184). This statement stems from Othello’s pride in being a man of high standing who will not be cheated on. Hamartia also comes into play where Othello believes that fate can be beaten by killing Desdemona. Even if Othello had escaped death here he would have been removed of his high military status and thrown in jail. Othello was truly a man consumed with pride and wrongly believed he he could defy fate and come out on top by killing what he loved most.
Othello could be considered not to be a tragedy because of its violation of the unities of time, space, and action. The unities of time, space, and action state that the story must take place in one city, occur in a short period of time more than 24 hours, and must follow one central character throughout the entire play. Othello does not occur in one city through the entire story. Othello went to war in Cyprus and spent most of his time living in Venice. Although there is very little time spent in Cyprus Othello, the story, does not work along the same lines as Hamlet. In Hamlet almost the entire story took place between the castle walls. As for the unity of action we see something quite different here. The play we studied is titled Othello, therefore, the reader assumes that Othello is the central character. If the book were not named this, it would be quite possible that many readers would believe the title could be Iago and not Othello. Although Iago is not the “good guy” he is in the play just as much or even more than Othello. At the beginning of the play Iago is present and Othello is absent. This is how it is many scenes are in the play. Although Othello is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies, there is still contradicting evidence against this.
Many scholars acclaim Othello as Shakespeare’s most perfect tragedy because it encompasses all of the elements of a tragedy so wonderfully. The love shared between Othello and Desdemona at the beginning of the play is so much more spectacular than that of Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet or Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. The guilt and wrong felt by Othello after he realizes his errors in judgement is uncomparable to the drama in Shakespeare’s other tragedies. Any audience viewing Othello for the first time would be captured by the characters because of their relation to the audience. Any experienced Shakespeare reader would have no problem giving Othello the title of most perfect tragedy because it covers all of the elements of a tragedy so wonderfully.