Tragedy within Othello


Identity within Othello

  • Within Othello, Shakespeare explores a multitude of factors that play an important role in the formations of one's identity – race, gender, social status, relationships, occupation etc. For example Shakespeare moulds Othello into a character with an identity of high prestige by putting an emphasise onto his military prowess and valour.
  • Shakespare also focuses on how an individual's identity, which can be broken down and manipulated by others, and how it can shape his or her actions.

Points of importance within the play

  • The transformation of Othello's identity throughout the play and hence the impact of his relationship with Desdemona upon his identity. 'Valiant Othello' 'you the blacker devil'
  • His loss of identity,as a respected and valient general, as a result of Desdemona's proposed infidelity. His anger at Desdemona's deception leads him to conform to the animalistic sterotypes placed upon him due to his race,his appearance becoming as savage as his actions.'Your eyes roll so' 'Unnatural' 'Why gnaw you so your nether lip?' 
  • Cassio's focus and devastation at the loss of his reputation and thus his identity 'Whats the matter that you unlace your reputation thus'  'I have lost the immortal part of myself,and what remains is bestial'
  • The impossible discovery of Iago's true identity,his deception and manipulation making his motives and true self even difficult for the audience to decifer and anticipate,despite the conitual use of soliloquy's to reveal the inner most depths of his corrupt mind to the audience and thus shape his chracter further.  'I am not what i am'
1 of 9

Othello as a tragic hero

  • Shakespeare implements a multitude of factors into Othello that are common to the classic greek tragedy definition of 'the tragic hero', as proposed by Aristotle.

 Points of importance within the play

  • Despite his high military rank ,in tragic terms Othello is a figure much closer to the ordinary man as a pose to Shakespeare's traditional tragic heros. Othello has military power but no status in Venetain society due to his race. His 'life and being' is not European. However he fetches his 'life and being' from 'men of the royal siege' and in this sense he has the status to fit the role of the classic tragic hero,he is foreign royalty,his culture is exotic and unworldy and is in part symbolised by the handkerchief,one of the plays most powerful dramatic devices.
  • Othello conforms to the traditional definition of a tragic hero- A Protagonist that has fallen from grace. This position demands he has strong beginnings,which is illustrated in his initual appearance,as he defies all of Iago's attempts to blacken his name; he appears sincere,in control and carries a natural authority.  By the end of the play,the tragedy is strongly enforced, as Othello has lost his status as a valiant and respected general and conforms to the impulsive and animalsitic imagery forced upon him from the offset of the play. 
  • Possession of a fatal flaw- Othello posesses a fatal flaw which contributes greatly towards is his downfall. There are multiple speculations as to what this is; jealousy,pride,egotism.
  • Most arguably Othello's fatal flaw is his allowance for the prejudices forced against him to override his own judgement and rationality and thus influence his actions. By the end of the play he feels unworthy of such a love as Desdemona's and claims he is murdering her for love.
2 of 9

Setting within Othello

  • The main action of the play occurs in Cyprus. This is away from the known and civilised state of Venice which thrives on capitalism and conformity to traditional morals. In the 17th century Venice was a repulic ruled by wealthy merchants.Within the first act,set in Venice,Shakespeare establishes an ordered world ,in which Iago's attempts at disruption are easily dismissed.
  • The setting of Cyprus allows Shakespeare's characters to exist within a world with no boundaries,ones which would have been imposed upon them within Venice. The tragedy shows continued occurence of boundaries being broken; in the form of defiant and independantly thinking women who bend the social structure, as well as a highly reowned and acconplished Moor being in command of the Venetian military; to contemparary audiences these features would have been shocking.
  • Venice representing control,rationality and order, is left behind. Cyprus is the outpost of civilisation which finds middle ground between Christian faith and the infidels. Cyprus has a lack of control,is a bastion of male power which leaves Desdemona alone and vulnerable to Iago's corruptive influence without the structure of Venice to protect her,this thickens the tragedy as we become aware the change in location contributes towards the fall.
  • A symbolic means of foreshadowing used by Shakespeare is the destruction of the fleet of ships used alongside a strong sense of pathetic fallacy. Using these means Shakespeare hints that the transition of setting,from tightly controlled Venice to the more dissolute Cyprus will end in disaster for the characters.
  • Cyrpus acts as a warlike milieu for the chracters,the men hungry for war and bloodshed with no war to occupy them,soon begin to turn on each other. Cyprus creates the perfect breeding ground for Iago's scheming to wreak havok and ensnare the characters into his corruptive web. 
3 of 9

Resolution within Othello

Resolution is a device used in dramatic literature to resolve the complexities of plots. It gives the audience a sense of catharsis,purification of emotions and a release of tension and anxiety. In Shakespearian dramas the resolution is commonly delivered in the form of the death of one,or multiple characters.

Points of importance within the play

  • The audience are left to contemplate their own moral, philosophical,political and social views. Is Othello's ending redeeming,were his actions justified? Does Othello's death have a significant impact upon the world around him,will his death affect the morals and social structure of the society in which he exists,is there therefore a feeling that moral forces are coming to work to fix the corrupt structures of Venetian society.As Cassio will now rule in Cyprus and Iago is to be brought to justice through death.
  • Or do the outcomes of the play merely suggest that society will continue,uninterupted and more firmly reinforcing the misguided morals and social structures. Desdemona had challenged the patriarchal order in marrying Othello,but she is murdered.smothered in a similar fashion to her attempts at defiance. The patriarchal attitudes that existed at the start of the play are reinforced by Cassio's appointment as ruler and thus there is a feeling little has been accomplished through Othello's death.
  • How safe is the future of the remaining characters and society? The tragic villain still lives and defiantly says that though he bleeds he is not killed. Although Lodovico sentences Iago to 'cunning cruelty' and 'torture',there is still an uncomfortable triumph in Iago's silence, a sort of personal victory. The resolution is unsettling and with the deaths of Desdemona, Emelia and Othello, there is a terrible sense of waste.
4 of 9

Inevitability within Othello

According to Aristotle's Poetics,inevitability is an important factor in a tragedy,used to portray the protagonists as pawns of fate. As a result,the actions of the characters in the play are futile,as it is made ultimately clear from the offset of the play, they cannot change the outcome of the tragedy.Points of importance 

  • Othello’s personal responsibility towards his tragic inevitability is centred on his character flaw.Hamartia is the personal responsibility that causes the tragedy to become inevitable, by the use of the protagonists’ character flaw. Othello's fatal flaw is made evident from the offset and this makes him appear to be easy pray to Iago's scheming,as Iago skillfully manipulates Othello's flawed self confidence.
  •  Othello's downfall largely stems from his disbelief in himself and his lack of self assurance. He cannot believe that a 'maiden' as fair,of such status and beauty as Desdemona could fall in love with 'what she fear'd to look on'. He makes it apparent that he is ignorant to his own abilities when he criticises his own speech in beginning.
  •  ‘He is radiant with twenty victories, he is studded with stars, this Othello, but he is black.’Victor Hugo pinpoints the catastrophe which Othello embodies. He is the epitome of bravery and heroism, but he is black and for his scoiety is harsh,and he cannot forgive himself. Unconsciously he reflects this self contempt, playing the part of the beast,in accordance to the previously immposed animalistic imagey. Iago, referring to Othello as a ‘Barbary horse,’ and an ‘old black ram,’ reinforces the idea that Othello is not part of the same world as Desdemona as she is portrayed as pure, innocent, a ‘white ewe.’ 
  • His self-doubt grows throughout the play as a result of Iago’s influence. By the end of the play Otello claims he is killing for love,he believes there are limited alternative fates for himself and Desdemona ,now that he is not deserving of such a love as hers and her honour is thought to be lost.
5 of 9

Shakespeare's presentation of Othello as a Tragic

Shakespeare shapes Othello to conform cleverly to the status of tragic hero

Points of Importance in the play

  •  To elevate Othello's status and provide him with the noble beginnings required, Shakespeare gives him muscial language,despite Othello's protests against the elegance and etiquette surrounding his speech whcih merely add to his modest and admirable nature. 'Keep up your bright swords,for the dew will rust them' Almost always speaking in verse as a pose to prose (highlighting the importance of his speech) and he is a fine rhetorican. His speech again moulding and shaping his identity as an initually noble chracter.
  • To highlight his downfall later on in the play,Othello begins to mimic Iago's crude and less elegant customaries of speech. This draws on Othello's manipulation at the hands of Iago and also puts focus on his reversal of fortunes hinting that indeed they are as a result of manmade attempts. and thus not inevitable. 'Lie with her? Lie on her...pish!' his incoherent speech also highlighting the emotional turmoil Iago has conjured within Othello's mind,he is a broken man with broken spirit and self clarification.
  • Exploitation at the hands of an unfathomable villain- Iago exploits Othello's fatal flaw of jeolousy to the full,this fall connects Othello with the audience,in turn evoking empathy,as they too may have felt the stab of the 'green eyed monster'
  • Othello's fall from nobility and grace is the play's driving tragic impulse. Before his death he comes to his 'recognition' and understands how he has been wrought upon,how he has trusted falsehoods and gains knowlegde of his own shortcomings.This adds to the tragedy as the audience recognise it is too late and hope is lost for a better ending.
6 of 9

Othello's end

Altering interpretations

  • It can be argued that Othello dies an honourable and valient death. Argued that his tragic stature rises upon his realisation of what he has lost 'like the base Indian,threw a pearl away', To highlight Othello's rediscovery of his clear mind and honourability he is elevated in the quality of his speech,regaining some previously lost elegancy 'If heaven would make me such another world... i'd not have sold her for it' Before taking his own life he admires Desdemona as he failed to do in her dying moments and consolidates his admirable visions by taking his own life,he has nothing more to lose,this although tragic gives a sense of wholeness to the play,the idea of Othello and Desdemona reuniting in the next world acts as a form of resolution.
  • However the degree of sympathy felt towards Othello at this point is debateable. While some see his death as something heroic and honourable in that he acknowledges the shame in his conduct. Others on the other hand,like critic Leavis, see his final speech as self centred,selfish and dramatisised for effect. He puts little focus on his victims and more emphasise on himself and the way that he will be remembered in death.
7 of 9

Iago's role in the Tragedy

Iago is used by Shakespeare to case doubt onto Othello's greatness,exploite his fatal flaw of jealousy and pride and conform to the definition of tragic villain within Othello.

Points of importance within the play

  • In one light Iago can be perceived as the ultimate stage villian-calculating,manipulative and ruthless.
  • Iago is a dramatic device within himself,creating tension and adding to the central drama.Coleridge claims that Iago's soliloquies reveal 'the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity',
  • On one hand Iago has several motives for his actions. However, despite his undoubted cunning and desire for revenge against Cassio and Othello, Shakespeare does not present Iago as having a clear plan from the start of the play:  he is more an opportunistic villain whose ideas gather momentum as he tastes success. What makes Iago's villainy more disturbing is the fact that he gets pleasure from the suffering he inflicts on those characters around him,he enjoys the thrill of the hunt and the sport of his terrible games, he enjoys the destruction of the love that his vulgarian mind cannot understand. 
  • Significance in regards to setting-  symbolic that the majority of Iago's activites take place in the darkness,resembling the hellish nature of his acts,linking to the theological view of Iago as the devil incarnate.
  • It is also possible to read him as a stage Machiavel, one who tortures and torments those who are good, using their very goodness to 'enmesh them' in his corrupt plans, Iago conjures a scandulous affair out of an innocent gesture of respect,a touching of the hand, and uses it to ensnare Othello in a web of jealousy and self destruction.
8 of 9

Inevitability-continued and Iago

  • Symbols-The loss of the handkercheif acts as a final and confirming symbol of the loss of Desdemona's honour and fidelity in the mind of Othello. His insanity being noted through the inncoherent speech and frenzied repetition.

Iago continued

  • Furthermore more modern readings interpret Iago as a mouth piece for the state,expressing the views, contempt and fears of the patriarchal assembly on outsiders and women. This is furthered as Iago's self interests mirror the interests of those who governed17th century europe, he understands Venetian attitudes and becomes a personal agent of imposing and enforcing the unwritten morals of the Venetian elites. Iago's triumph over the destruction of Othello and Desdemona; both as individuals and as a couple could be seen as what the state desired.
9 of 9




Spelling is terrible

Similar English Literature resources:

See all English Literature resources »See all Othello resources »