Othello as an Aristotelean Tragedy

Legendary playmakers, such as Aristotle and Sophocles, held an influential position in the history of theatrical performances. In creating works like Oedipus the King, such experts seemingly knew how to intertwine human emotion with the actions of the narrative. This prowess eventually adopted by other artists led to the creation of some of the greatest plays in history. Interestingly, most of these plays entailed a protagonist, covered in splendor and valor throughout the play. The lead character often gained high societal approval, and nothing could seemingly bring them down. A twist in the tale, however, unleashes a tragedy to the protagonist, bringing the character down to their knees; such is an Aristotelian tragedy. This article seeks to analyze the position of language and knowledge in such a tragic play to unravel the undisputed role of words in building up such an Aristotelian tragedy.

The subtext of Shakespeare’s Othello reveals how words and language mold the emotions of the audience into developing judgement of Othello himself, then contorting it into pity afterward. Surely, words and patterns of speech reveal the true intentions of the author to fulfilling the aim and moral lessons of the play. Othello represents such an Aristotelian tragedy intertwined by the mere words of the characters.

Language perhaps accomplishes the most re-assuring role in preparing and asserting the position of the protagonist for a fall. Othello plots to kill his lover Desdemona over allegations passed to him by his ensign Iago. The only piece of evidence to support the allegations is a handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello. Iago gets hold of the handkerchief, plants it in Cassio’s room, and uses it to instigate Othello’s jealousy. Most significant in Aristotelian tragedies is the seemingly invincible nature of the protagonist, crumbled by small flaws in personality. Shakespeare uses linguistics to unveil the hidden, jealous, and, gullible nature of Othello.

At first, Othello describes the handkerchief that Iago wants to steal,  as a magical idol gifted to him by his mother who got it from an Egyptian oracle. “She told her, while she kept it, ‘twould make her amiable, and subdue my father, Entirely to her love; but, if she lost it, or made a gift of it, my father’s eye should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt after new fancies. (3.4.58-64) Clearly, Othello speaks passionately of the handkerchief stating its emotional significance in both his parent’s and his relationship, it has become a symbol for the love and the that Othello holds for Desdemona. Ironically, after Desdemona’s murder, Othello blatantly points to the handkerchief in Cassio’s possession as proof of guilt. Othello asserts, “In recognizance and pledge of lovewhich I first gave her I saw it in his hand it was a handkerchief of an antique token, my father gave my mother. (5.2.215-218). Othello’s language and words clearly betray his invincible nature revealing the chink in his armor that causes his downfall.

In the first description Othello makes, the handkerchief belonged to his mother and had magical powers that subdued his father. The handkerchief loses its magical powers in the second description. Othello says it belonged to his father, who passed it to his mother. Although only vivid to a discerning eye, Othello’s change in perspective about the handkerchief exposes human weakness, contrary to his noble and acclaimed societal status. The great Othello suffers from self-centeredness, and cannot comprehend Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. The first description of the handkerchief assesses the emotional value and power of the handkerchief as a symbol; signifying its role in holding the relationship in question in place. If the handkerchief had magical powers and forbidden to be gifted or given away; then Desdemona would have committed a great transgression by bestowing it upon Cassio. Even Othello himself knew deep within that Desdemona would not present the handkerchief to another. After plotting and committing Desdemona’s murder, Othello realizes he lacks foresight in the possibility of a setup in the planting of the evidence (handkerchief). To fulfill his role as the protagonist in the Aristotelian tragedy, Othello disregards the importance of the handkerchief in his final description in Act 5, dismissing his heroic and invincible perspective held by the audience.

Another significant aspect of Aristotelian tragedies is the feature of self-realization in the actions of the protagonist. In Aristotelian tragedies, the tragic hero usually understands his/her mistakes before the end of the play, culminating to a moral lesson for the audience. Language, knowledge, and, words provided Shakespeare with a perfect avenue to channel Othello’s lack of self-realization throughout the play.

The above-mentioned passages about the handkerchief also illustrate how Othello lacks self-realization, until the very end. Interestingly, throughout the play, Othello remained convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity. Othello’s foolishness leads to a conclusion that, “Yet I’ll not shed her blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men (5.2.6). Clearly, Othello remained sunken in Iago’s lies even during Desdemona’s murder. The piece of evidence against Desdemona, that was provided falsely, hindered Othello from the self-realization of the impending mistake.

Additionally, Desdemona demanded to Othello that, “wedding-sheets (4.2.105) be spread on her deathbed as a dying wish. On an exclusive romantic night planned by the two, Othello possessed no sense of self-realization of his foolishness, Iago’s manipulation, or the impending tragedy. At the end of the play, Shakespeare, however, employs words, language, and knowledge to cement Othello’s self-realization, and the Aristotelian tragedy. Othello receives knowledge of Iago’s manipulation through a letter addressed by Roderigo; Desdemona’s secret admirer, to Iago, plotting the protagonist’s downfall. Othello received the letter from Cassio, containing the details of the plot to bring him down; achieving self-realization.

Overwhelmingly, Shakespeare employs the creative use of knowledge, words, and, language to creatively plot the course of the Aristotelian tragedy. The main thematic features of Othello parallel this structure in the protagonist’s downfall, and consequential self-realization, which depend on words and language, along with tangible symbols (the handkerchief) for illumination.

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