Is Othello, the Moor of Venice

William Shakespeare’s Othello

Aristotle’s norms of a classic tragedy outlined in his Poetics have traditionally been considered as an etalon for drama writers throughout centuries. Nevertheless, not all tragedies fulfill all Aristotelian requirements. Thus, they fall beyond a category of classic tragic dramas. It is clear that writers of different epochs and cultures had to adapt Aristotelian requirements to tragedies in order to appeal to their target audiences and gain popularity. William Shakespeare is deemed to be an outstanding writer. His tragedies are classic and eternally topical masterpieces evoking the audience’s interest notwithstanding the country and culture where they are staged. However, it is yet to be seen whether his tragedy Othello, the Moor of Venice may be classified as an Aristotelian one. Opinions of literary scholars and critics vary relating to this issue. The current paper strives to prove that Othello, the Moor of Venice is truly a sample of an Aristotelian tragedy, albeit slightly modified by the author to appease to his contemporaries and emphasize some topical issues. Its main hero may be deemed an ideal tragic hero as per Aristotelian canons; an intended impact of the tragedy is catharsis, and the plot envisions anagnorisis and peripety in the fate of the main hero.

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A thesis statement Othello, the Moor of Venice falls under the definition of an Aristotelian tragedy, albeit slightly modified by the author to appeal to his contemporaries and raise some topical issues. Its main hero may be deemed an ideal tragic hero as per Aristotelian canons, the intended impact of the tragedy is catharsis, and the plot envisions anagnorisis and peripety in the fate of the main hero.

  1. William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice is a world-known tragedy that is considered to be an integral part of the classical literary heritage. It is to be read and carefully studied by everyone.
  2. The tragedy under consideration may be deemed an Aristotelian one as it fulfills major requirements.
  1. A brief definition of an Aristotelian tragedy.
  2. Critical views of the tragedy under analysis in terms of its belonging to the category of Aristotelian tragedies.
  1. Othello is an ideal tragic hero as his traits and fate are meticulously worked out by William Shakespeare to make the protagonist fit the Aristotelian canon.
  2. Anagnorisis and peripety also prove the Aristotelian nature of the tragedy.
  3. All things considered, Othello, the Moor of Venice may be deemed an Aristotelian tragedy although some of its inherent elements were slightly modified by the author. He had to consider his epoch and target audience, but its tragic hero and two significant elements of the plot corroborate the following fact. It truly belongs to the category of classic Aristotelian tragedies.
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Is Othello, the Moor of Venice, an Aristotelian Tragedy?


William Shakespeare’s literary legacy is well-known and appreciated all over the world with his major being an integral part of the school and university curricula. Knowledge and comprehension of the most famous masterpieces of this author are considered to be the major elements that differentiate an intelligent and sophisticated person from an ignorant fool. Shakespeare’s works have been under scrutiny of many literary critics for centuries, virtually almost since the time of their first publications. However, still, there are unanswered questions and puzzles that amaze and fascinate both professional literary scholars and readers. His masterpieces, including his tragedies, have been studied and analyzed from various perspectives. One of them is the question of whether they may be included in the category of so-called Aristotelian tragedies, i.e. whether they fulfill certain requirements set forth by the ancient scholar as canons for the ideal tragedy. The current paper is focused on answering this question on the basis of the tragedy entitled Othello, the Moor of Venice. Having read and analyzed the primary source, as well as some relevant secondary sources, Othello, the Moor of Venice definitely falls under the definition of the Aristotelian tragedy. However, it was slightly modified by the author to appeal to his contemporaries and raise then topical issues. It is so as its main hero may be deemed an ideal tragic character as per Aristotelian canons; the intended impact of the tragedy is catharsis. Its plot envisions anagnorisis and peripety in the fate of the main hero.

Othello, the Moor of Venice, as an Aristotelian Tragedy

  • Brief Definition of an Aristotelian Tragedy

According to Aristotle’s definition, “tragedy is an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some amplitude; in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties; acted not narrated; by means of pity and fear effecting its purgation of these emotions” (Kennedy & Gioia, 2013). Aristotle witnessed numerous plays and considered the tragedy to be a sort of an elitist type of entertainment. It brings forth topical issues and traits of human nature and gives the audience some sense of catharsis. The latter one means purgation through experiencing fear and pity as two major emotions to be solicited by the tragedy. An ideal tragedy should follow certain rules in terms of its plot, characters, ending, and emotional appeals. Besides, it should convey a message through a dramatic play of actors. Its main role is to make the audience experience fear and pity throughout the play and reach katharsis at the end. However, the tragedy should not leave a bad aftertaste and make viewers feel depressed or sad. On the contrary, it should make them feel elated and right as events depicted on the stage have been realistic, tragic in their realism, and captivating. The tragedy of heroes on stage must be perceived by viewers as a just punishment for protagonists’ actions called forth by their weaknesses and fault decisions. A key element of a successful tragedy is an ideal tragic hero. Based on Aristotle’s Poetics, one scholar has defined such a hero as follows: “The tragic hero is typically on top of the wheel of fortune, halfway between human society on the ground and the something greater in the sky” (Corrigan, 1981, p. 125). According to Aristotle, a tragic hero should be oh a high social standing, preferably of royal descent. It would not be satisfying for the audience to observe some fall of an ordinary person just like they are. The higher the protagonist stands in the society the better as it implies that his/her fall would be spectacular. Thus, the hero should be noble, decent, and happy in the beginning. However, he/she must also be fallible and have some trait or weakness that would lead to his/her demise. This weakness or error in actions is called hamartia. It is often referred to as a tragic flaw (Kennedy & Gioia, 2013). Some tragic heroes may suffer from excessive pride and overconfidence, which is called hubris (Kennedy & Gioia, 2013). During the play, viewers should experience pity and fear, which ends in catharsis or emotional purgation. Unless this objective is reached, a tragedy cannot be deemed as successful as per Aristotle. The plot should also follow some essential rules, the most significant of which include anagnorisis or recognition and peripety or reversal of fate. Anagnorisis means that the tragic hero discovers some ugly truth or realizes the faultiness of his/her past actions. It leads to some sort of epiphany after which this protagonist cannot continue living as before. Peripety means a reversal of fate, mainly from happiness to unhappiness. It happens as a result of the hero’s actions and hamartia. The above-described elements are the most crucial ones that distinguish the Aristotelian tragedy from other kinds of dramas.

  • Does the Tragedy under Consideration Truly Belong to the Category of Aristotelian Tragedies?

The overwhelming majority of literary scholars and critics agree that Othello, the Moor of Venice may be considered the Aristotelian tragedy. Some even suppose this is the “play in which Shakespeare comes closest to meeting Aristotle’s criteria for an effective tragedy of character” (McCauley, 2012). In addition to fulfilling requirements set forth for an ideal tragic hero, as well as plot elements, the tragedy emphasizes and highlights issues being topical at the time of Shakespeare. These problems remain topical today, which explains its popularity. Some of these eternal issues include “love and marriage, courtship and parental authority, professional promotion and jealousy, power and thwarted ambition, friendship and betrayal, treachery and honesty, hatred and forgiveness, domestic violence, intercultural relationships” (McCauley, 2012). Most scholars lay a special emphasis on the existence of hamartia in the play, pointing out its first appearance in “act three, scene three – as the point at which Othello commits his ‘tragic error’ or succumbs to his ‘tragic flaw’” (Gottlied, 2009). However, some critics suppose this view of the tragedy and hamartia, in particular, as somewhat superficial as “to proclaim Shakespeare’s Othello as a tragedy of jealousy is but to echo the opinion of every critic whoever wrote about it” (Godfrey, 1972). Nevertheless, they still admit that jealousy is a powerful force in the play. It accelerates the fall of heroes. Even if Othello did not succumb to the green-eyed monster, the tragedy would still occur because of his credulity and Iago’s evil nature (Godfrey, 1972). There is an even more radical critical reading of the tragedy under consideration. The minority of scholars suppose that Othello, the Moor of Venice is not quite a tragedy at all. However, rather it should be viewed “as a bitter, satirical comedy with a disturbing, frustrating, tragic ending that denies the audience its expected catharsis – a play inspired by satirical commedia dell’arte performances in Italy” (Whalen, 2011). Proponents of this idea reject the view of the play as “a romantic tragedy about a jealous military hero, who is black, and his aristocratic Venetian bride, who is white” (Whalen, 2011). The current paper strives to prove that Othello is an Aristotelian tragedy. This drama meets basic requirements relating to a tragic hero and plot. Nonetheless, alternative views of the issue seem to be rather interesting although lacking in substantial evidence to prove their hypotheses.

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Othello as an Ideal Tragic Hero

Othello is the Moor of Venice and occupies a high military rank being a general. He is then an appointed ruler of Cyprus at the time of the Turkish threat. Although he can hardly be called a royal or an aristocrat since he even has been a slave as a child, he married into a noble family of Desdemona. Besides, his character speaks of his inner nobility, at least, at the beginning. His outstanding military talent makes him a prominent citizen of Venice whom the Duke of Venice and senators turn to at the time of some military threat. Moreover, he seems to be an honorable, open-hearted, and decent person. He has survived a lot in life, but he has not become bitter and evil. Such a depiction of the protagonist is characteristic of Aristotelian tragedies where noble heroes fall from their high social and moral positions into an abyss. It is also worth mentioning that Shakespeare’s description of Othello is untypical for his times when moors or merely black people originating from Africa were considered to be evil savages with no moral decency and honor. The only fault or weakness in the nature of Othello is his jealousy. It may be deemed hamartia in this tragedy. Uncontrolled and unreasonable jealousy becomes the beginning of a tragic end for many parties involved in the domestic tragedy, including Othello himself. Upon hearing Iago’s poisonous lies, Othello is quickly enraged. As a result, he proclaims such statements as “I’ll tear her all to pieces”, “O, blood, blood, blood!”, “Within these three days let me hear thee say That Cassio’s not alive”, “Damn her, lewd minx! Damn her!”, and similar ones like those ones (Shakespeare, 1604). Such harsh and swift response to incriminations of Desdemona’s infidelity also proves Othello’s insecurity and credulity. Another protagonist’s weakness, which is no less strong or even perhaps more prominent than jealousy, is his credulous and trusting nature. He trusts people and does not see through their lying masks and poisonous words. They take roots in his soul and grow until he murders his beloved wife. Thus, hamartia of the tragic hero ends in a disaster for his family. It is also worth noting that jealousy is a dominant trait in some other characters’ nature as well. For instance, Roderigo and Iago plot against the general because of this feature of the character. The moment the tragic hero succumbs to his fatal weakness may be deemed the very moment of peripety or reversal in fate. In the end, Othello has to face and acknowledge the faulty nature of his accusations and actions leading to anagnorisis. The audience cannot but pity him at that particular moment as he has lost everything through his own decisions and actions. However, the most tragic thing is that he truly believed that his wife is not loyal to him, which virtually destroyed his self-confidence and his once strong moral inner core. Furthermore, the audience cannot but feat that such a thing can happen to anyone once they give in to the green-eyed monster. Otherwise, they are nave and gullible enough to become a victim of some treacherous Iago who represents all evils and manipulating villains of the world. Hence, the tragedy under consideration reaches the intended effect of katharsis and purges the audience through two strong feelings such as fear and pity evoked by the tragic end of the Aristotelian tragic hero.

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Anagnorisis and Peripety as Elements of an Aristotelian Tragedy

Anagnorisis and peripety are two essential elements of the plot of this Aristotelian tragedy. As mentioned above, they are both present in the tragedy under consideration. Peripety or reversal in the fate of the protagonist from happiness to misery and tragedy happens in Act III when Othello listens to poisonous words of Iago and succumbs to his jealousy, hence proclaiming “So I had nothing known. O, now, forever Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!” (Shakespeare, 1604). He could have averted the tragedy be acting reasonably and forgiving his wife or investigating the matter. However, he acts in a rush and decides to kill her to atone for her sins. This action speaks of a rather perverted vision of her religion. Besides, events could have happened differently had they had lived in Venice rather in Cyprus in a state of constant military threat. Anyway, the tragic end of the hero becomes inevitable once he decides to kill his wife and her lover.

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Anagnorisis happens when Othello learns the truth from Emilia and then Cassio. He condemns Iago for his treachery and condemns himself for the murder of beloved Desdemona. It is evident from his words in the last Act V like “O, fool! fool! fool!” (Shakespeare, 1604). He could have avoided a severe punishment at those times after a tribunal in Venice. He had some evidence of his wife’s infidelity prior to killing her, no matter how fabricated they were. He was a renowned general who had done a lot for the state of Venice. However, he decides to restore his honor to some extent and punishes himself to death: “I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee: no way but this; Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (Shakespeare, 1604). His suicide is clearly a punishment that exceeds the crime. It is also typical of the Aristotelian tragedy.


The above analysis proves that Othello, the Moor of Venice falls under the definition of the Aristotelian tragedy, albeit slightly modified by the author to appeal to his contemporaries and raise then topical issues. Its main hero may be deemed an ideal tragic character as per Aristotelian canons; the intended impact of the tragedy is catharsis. Its plot envisions anagnorisis and peripety in the fate of the main hero. Jealousy, naivety, credulity, and treacherousness constitute a solid foundation of the tragedy, which seems to be inevitable once viewers get acquainted with the main characters and their storytelling. Nothing could have saved Desdemona and Othello, as well as collaborative victims since their fate has been decided in advance by their weaknesses and faults.


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