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Othello Essay

August 20th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tragic dramas have been written and performed for many centuries and throughout this time, they have undergone an evolutionary process, with each successive era of tragic drama deriving directly or indirectly from its predecessors. Scholars believe that the play Othello by William Shakespeare was first published in 1603; approximately at the same time as Shakespeare’s other great tragedies Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. After careful analysis of each of these four great tragedies, we can conclude that Shakespeare has maintained a ‘template’ for tragedy throughout these works, more specifically a backbone plot to which he can add different characters and themes to create tragic dramas dealing with entirely different issues. By examining Shakespeare’s template for tragedy, we begin to notice similarities with past templates for tragedy, examples of which include the Aristotle, Seneca and Christian Morality templates. Each of which will be looked at in detail shortly to analyse how they have influenced the production of the play Othello. To relate Othello to the template for Shakespearean tragedy and other older forms of tragedy, firstly we must deconstruct Shakespeare’s template for tragedy and compare the characters and plot lines presented in Othello to those fitting the template. Subsequently we must decide to what extent its components are similar to those seen in other forms of tragedy and hence to what extent previous templates have influenced the creation of Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

The Shakespearean template for tragedy is a set of guidelines to which the great four tragedies are loosely based upon, and as will be seen, Othello is an excellent example of this. The tragic characteristic that Shakespeare sees in life is the imperfection of the human psyche, and the adverse consequences of the exploitation of flaws. Shakespeare incorporates this theme heavily into his template for tragedy, so much so, that each of his great tragedies center entirely around the downfall of a protagonist from a position of nobility and high status. In all cases, the exploitation of the tragic hero’s fatal flaw, leads to a downward spiral in the character’s sanity and morality, always leading to death. The hero must always start high in that he must have high moral values, be good natured and is of a high position in society. During the course of the play, there is a conflict often involving the villain, causing the surfacing of the hero’s fatal flaw. This unbalance in the hero’s character always leads to the hero commits mainly heinous acts of violence towards people close and important to him, often while in a state of delusion or frenzy. Just prior to the death of the hero, there is a Catharsis, in which the hero gains insight into all the harm and suffering he has caused. He realizes at this point that his fatal flaw has lead to his fall from grace and that he must now end his own life to cease any further suffering and pain. After a simple analysis of the plot and characters in Othello, each of these features can be seen. It is quite apparent that Othello starts off as a noble and great man. Not only was he a General in the army, but he was also greatly respected and admired in the community. He was often referred to as “The Valiant Moor” or “Valiant Othello” by many of his colleagues and even men who were not particularly fond of him, but to understand his true greatness we must look at Iago’s words; “The Moor (howbeit that I endure him not) Is of a constant, loving, noble nature”. The importance of this quote is further emphasized as we see Iago constantly repeating the words “I hate the Moor”. We see that despite Iago’s hatred towards Othello, he cannot deny that Othello is of great nobility and honour. This proves that Othello, started very high despite his eventual downfall. Next, we witness the manipulation of Othello’s fatal flaw; jealousy. Iago tempts Othello into thinking bad of his wife, and despite Othello’s best efforts, his uncontrollable jealousy overwhelms him. Act III Scene III is often regarded as the conflict scene as it is the scene in which Iago tempts Othello, that is, the first step in Othello’s eventual downfall. During this scene, Othello states “I do not think but Desdemona’s honest”, but in a matter of fifty lines, the effect of Iago deviousness is revealed. Othello exclaims “She’s gone. I am abus’d, and my relief Must be to loathe her”. It is after this scene that the downfall of Othello occurs. His jealousy begins to overwhelm him, and even though his demands “ocular proof, he accepts a simple misplaced handkerchief as proof of Desdemona’s waning honesty. He subsequently commits many monstrous acts, the worst of which is killing Desdemona, his beloved wife. After this deed, he realizes that he was deceived by Iago and repents all his wrong doings, namely the Catharsis of the play. As the play comes to a close, Othello takes his own life, as a sign of penitence, a true sign of a tragic hero. As can be seen, Othello is an excellent example of a play following the Shakespearean template for tragedy, but to find out its true roots, we must also look at earlier forms of tragedy.

Firstly, we can look at Aristotle’s template for tragedy. Tragic dramas under the Aristotle tragedy were not necessarily written by Aristotle himself, but rather they were analysed and accepted as fitting the guidelines of tragedy in accordance to Aristotle theories. Aristotle believed that tragic dramas must involve ‘cause-and-effect chains’. This can be interpreted as saying that tragic dramas must envision the consequences of a particular action or behaviour, and in addition must not be episodic, but rather a linear progression of events. Aristotle also believed that protagonist have a Hamartia, which in modern times has been translated to tragic flaw or mistake. Hence, the ideal tragedy will comprise of the downfall of the hero due to a mistake or flaw in his character rather than being evil or sinful. Lastly, a Catharsis occurs at the end of the play in which there is a purification of the central character’s errors. Although it is debatable to whether Shakespeare was aware of these older forms of tragic drama, it can be easily argued that the tragedy of Othello derives directly or indirectly from the traditions and principles laid down by older forms of tragic drama. The main evidence of this is the closeness to which Shakespeare’s template for tragedy parallel’s that of Aristotle’s. As can be seen, both Shakespeare and Aristotle both rely heavily upon the exploitation of a hero’s fatal flaw to be the major source of conflict in a drama. In addition the play Othello follows closely to features of Aristotle’s tragedy that are not specifically stated as part of Shakespeare’s tragedy. An example of this is the cause-and-effect visualization presented. The play Othello shows the consequences of an action or event, as Othello chooses to believe Iago’s mistrustful words over his own better judgment, thus resulting in his eventual downfall. As can be seen Othello closely resembles traditions of much older forms of tragic drama. For further proof of this, we can look at Senecan tragedy.

Seneca was a Roman philosopher, who wrote about the abundance of evil in the world and it manifestations. Typically, a Senecan Tragedy begins with a Could of Evil, but eventually ends in the defeat of this evil. Seneca showed evil in many forms and often used supernatural themes and gruesome forms of death as a form a dramatization. Othello can be analysed to correlate with Senecan tragedy, through the evil in the play; Iago. Even from the beginning, the audience sees Iago as a scheming villain. He states “I am not what I am” indicating he is simply putting on a fa?ade to Othello, when the reality is that he is only seeking a means to fulfill his own desires. At this point, the audience instantly predicts the evil that Iago is likely to bring to the play. Throughout the course of the play, Iago’s presence is felt as he constantly tempts and coaxes Othello into believing Desdemona’s infidelity. By the end of the play, Iago’s death signifies the end of evil and more specifically the triumph of good over evil. As can be seen, through the use of evil as a means of conflict, Othello corresponds to the Senecan template for tragedy. Supplementary to this, the handkerchief if often seen as a means of conveying supernatural themes. The mysteriousness of its placement was often regarded as a possibility to Shakespearean audiences, who believed much more strongly in the mystical powers than modern audiences. It must also be mentioned that Othello does not completely follow Senecan tragedy as there is no torture or extremely violent acts, and hence Othello only follows Senecan tragedy to a certain extent.

Lastly, we must look at Christian Morality Plays, of which an example is the play Everyman. Christian Morality Plays were a major constituent of medieval drama, and were created to promote and teach the Christian doctrines. The aim of all Morality plays was to teach the audience the consequences of particular actions and more specifically show the consequences of wrong doings. To do this, the plays often consisted of character’s who represented metaphorical characteristics favourable or unfavourable to humans, such as love and greed. Othello can be seen as following these principles in that it also teaches the consequences of wrong doing. The characters presented in Othello can also be seen as loosely representing particular virtues, such as Iago represents greed and evil whereas Desdemona represents love and honesty. In this case, Othello must decide to what extent he follows each character, therefore determining his course of actions. As seen in Morality plays, Othello chooses wrongly and faces the consequences of his actions. But eventually realizes his mistake and saves his soul by committing suicide. As can be seen, the play Othello derives from Christian Morality plays and therefore century-old traditions of tragic drama.

The play Othello was designed and written to fit the Shakespearean template for tragedy, but as seen has inevitably been derived from older forms of tragic drama. This is extremely evident in that the plot, characters and themes presented in Othello resonate the templates for older for of tragic drama. In conclusion it can be said that due to the large similarities between Shakespeare’s Othello and its predecessors, Othello itself derives not only from the Shakespearean template for tragedy but has also been influenced greatly by past instances of tragedy and tragic drama.
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