In Shakespeare’s Othello, as a General of the Venetian army, Othello meets these criteria, as his mistake is to trust ‘honest Iago’ and convince himself that revenge upon Desdemona will lead to honour and success. In fact, as with most tragic heroes, it is this decision which leads to his destruction. However, it is important to consider whether Othello’s ruin was the inevitable result of the defects in his character or whether there were other forces, outside of his control, which led him to his doom.
If it is solely Othello’s hamartia which leads to his downfall, then it must be related to the change in his perception of Desdemona. In Act 1, when warned by Brabantio that Desdemona may also deceive Othello, Othello retorts passionately: ‘My life upon her faith! ’ The exclamation here demonstrates the dedication and trust that Othello feels towards his new wife, but by Act 3, Othello is already beginning to doubt her: ‘By the world,/ I think my wife by honest, and I think she is not’ (3. 3. 389).
Shakespeare’s use of cosmic imagery when Othello swears illustrates the magnitude of Othello’s resentment at his own hesitation, as his judgement is usually impulsive, as in Aleppo, (5. 2. 361) when he knew immediately to ‘smote him thus’, as he was certain of his enemy, but in this case, doubt has impaired his vision and he is unsure who to trust: his new wife or ‘honest Iago’. Othello’s peripeteia occurs when he decides to trust Iago; however, the audience are surprised at this decision, as it is unclear what has changed his perception of Desdemona so that he condemns her as ‘that cunning whore of Venice’ (4. . 88). Some critics are of the opinion that it is jealousy that has clouded his judgement thus, and argue that this must be his hamartia. However, it is equally possible that Shakespeare has given Othello the ‘fitness of character’ that Aristotle stated was an important feature of a tragic hero, as his true hamartia may be his value of the honour-shame culture which existed among European Elizabethan warriors, and is linked to the hubris common in tragic heroes.
It can be argued that the shame induced by the idea of his wife’s unfaithfulness results in his downfall, which Shakespeare expresses through animalistic imagery: ‘I had rather be a toad/ And live upon the vapour of a dungeon/ Than keep a corner in the thing I love/ For others’ uses’. Therefore, Desdemona’s murder becomes an act of sacrificial love: ‘A murder which I thought a sacrifice’ (5. 2. 64) as he feels that ‘else she’ll betray more men. Perhaps it is for this reason that, in his death scene, Othello says: ‘For naught I did in hate, but all in honour’ (5. 2. 301) and calls himself ‘An honourable murderer’. Either way, possible flaws like these suggest that Othello’s downfall was his own doing as such traits may have driven him to trust Iago and murder Desdemona, actions which in his anagnorisis led to extreme suffering, and caused him to commit suicide. Alternatively, Othello’s impulsive and passionate nature could also have contributed to his downfall, as this may have been his hamartia.
This would fit the necessary ‘consistency’ outlined by Aristotle, as the same passion and instantaneous response can be found in his reaction to Brabantio in scene 1 as in the later scenes, in his immediate reaction to Iago’s suggestive statements. At first Othello responds calmly: ‘Why dost thou ask? ’But the more evasive Iago is of such questions, the more it riles Othello and Shakespeare uses cosmic imagery when Othello swears such as ‘By heaven, I’ll know thy thoughts’ to demonstrate the value that Othello assigns to Iago’s opinions.
When Iago eventually suggests that Desdemona is dishonest, Othello trusts Iago to ‘Give [him] the ocular proof’ (3. 3. 361), and some critics may argue that this rash decision to trust Iago is proof that Othello is impulsive, causing him to make foolish decisions. It is for this reason that he accepts Iago’s story of Cassio’s dream as the ‘ocular proof’ even though Iago admits ‘’Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream’; Othello immediately reacts: ‘I’ll tear her all to pieces! ’ (3. 3. 433).
Shakespeare then uses dark and malignant imagery to show Othello’s passionate rage with phrases such as ‘Arise black vengeance’ and ‘tyrannous hate! ’ Such imagery would have been significant to an Elizabethan audience, as they considered the colour white to symbolise purity and goodness, whereas black had strong connotations of the devil, evil and uncleanness, thus highlighting the wickedness in Othello’s disposition. Therefore, this can be used as evidence that Othello was only convinced by
Iago’s improbable suggestions because he was led by passion and impulse, being ‘Perplexed in the extreme’ by rage, instinctively trusting Iago. The motif of blood that Shakespeare includes supports this: ‘O, blood, blood, blood! ’ (3. 3. 452) as it has connotations of violence, therefore foreshadowing the violence of the final act, in which the motif is repeated by Desdemona: ‘Some bloody passion shakes your very frame’ showing the connection between Othello’s hamartia and Desdemona’s murder.
On the other hand, it can be argued that Othello’s downfall was not his own doing. In Act 3 scene 3, Shakespeare first suggests that Othello truly doubts Desdemona when he says, ‘And yet how nature erring from itself-’ (3. 3. 229) because he thinks that being white, Desdemona would prefer a white man like Cassio to himself. Such racial insecurities are highlighted in Othello’s character throughout the play, and may be the reason behind the pains that he takes to impress people through his speech and experiences.
However this line implies that Othello’s doubt in Desdemona were the result of racial insecurities, and whilst they could be singular to him, the prejudices that existed against ‘Moors’ in the Elizabethan era, and in the play suggest otherwise. Queen Elizabeth complained in 1601 of the "great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which are crept into this realm," 1 a feeling also expressed in the play when Othello is condemned as an ‘old black ram’ (1. 1. 89) and a ‘Barbary horse’ (1. 1. 111). Such animalistic metaphors emphasise the low opinion that Elizabethans had of ‘Blackamoors’, which may have been the root of Othello’s downfall.
Similarly, the unconventionality of Othello’s marriage to Desdemona rebelled against Elizabethan ideology, being ‘contrary to nature’ as critic Karen Newman put it, which presented an obstacle in itself. Their marriage broke the natural order causing chaos and consequently, as in most tragedies, this chaotic force had to be destroyed for order to be restored. Such ideals may be evidence that the couple’s ruin was inevitable, as to an Elizabethan audience, they symbolised the unnatural, chaotic force which must be overthrown.
Alternatively, it is equally possible that although Othello had many flaws, it was Iago who acted as a catalyst by exposing them, thus causing Othello’s downfall. Shakespeare frequently alludes to this through recurring motifs which show Iago’s power of corruption, the first of these being poison. For example, when plotting, Iago refers to poison when he says: ‘I’ll pour pestilence into his ear’ (2. 3. 346), and then in the final scene, Lodovico summarises the 3 corpses as ‘poisons sight’, thus demonstrating the link between Iago’s manipulation and the plight of Othello and those around him.
Shakespeare builds upon this manipulation through the motif of turning, as Iago vows to ‘turn her virtue into pitch’ (2. 3. 350), in the same way that Othello turns ‘Turk’ through the metaphor in his final speech, ‘an turbaned Turk... traduced the state... And smote him thus’ (5. 2. 349-52), and is evidence of Iago’s success in turning Othello from a General into an enemy of ‘the state’. Similarly, the black and white imagery of ‘virtue’ and ‘pitch’ is repeated by Othello himself when referring to Desdemona’s reputation: ‘begrimed and black/As mine own face. However, ‘begrimed’ implies that both characters are stained, but as Desdemona is innocent, and Othello’s inherited ethnicity determines his skin colour, the simile could relate to Iago’s manipulation, and the darkness that he has brought upon the couple. This is mirrored by the transformation of Othello’s language: formerly grand verse depicting his former successes becomes sinister and dark, with animalistic imagery of goats, monkeys, toads, and poisonous snakes, and diabolic metaphors for Desdemona such as ‘fair devil’, which liken his language to that of Iago.
These changes are evidence of the vital role of Iago in Othello’s downfall, suggesting that Othello’s flaws, although numerous, may not have been fatal. It is for this reason that the phrase ‘Perplexed in the extreme’ in Othello’s final soliloquy, can take on a double meaning, as although Othello’s passionate emotions of jealousy, rage, and shame clouded his judgement, Iago’s ability to manipulate, which Shakespeare has emphasised through his use of repeated motifs and imagery, could have been the other vital factor.
It was this combination that influenced Othello to make the fatal and mistaken decision that Iago’s suspicions were correct and believe that his honour would be regained if he took vengeance upon Desdemona. Iago was only successful because of Othello’s hidden flaws, but equally Othello’s flaws were deeply buried within him, allowing him to become a General of the Venetian army, proving that they were not fatal, but aroused by skilful manipulators like Iago. 1584 words Bibliography •1 = http://www. suite101. om/content/elizabeth-i-motives-for-expulsion-of-blackamoors-from-london-a248507 •A. C. Bradley (1904) Shakespearian Tragedy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan •Beard & Kent (2008) AQA AS English Literature B, Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes •Marian Cox (2003) AS/ A-Level Student Text Guide, Othello, William Shakespeare Oxfordshire: Phillip Allan Updates •http://www2. cnr. edu/home/bmcmanus/poetics. html •http://www. britaininprint. net/shakespeare/study_tools/race. html •William Shakespeare (2003) Othello Edited by Norman Sanders Cambridge: Cambridge University Press