Othello is a classical tragedy.’ Discuss this statement in the light of the play.



The question of whether Othello is a classical tragedy relies on two major factors, the first obviously being the content of the play itself which I will discuss later, the second the definition of what a classical tragedy actually is. A classical tragedy can be defined as a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man of high estate. It was originally looked at by Aristotle, a great philosopher and dramatic critic of the fourth century BC. He stated that the chief characters of a tragic action should be persons of consequence, of exalted station. The leading personage should not be a man characterized by great virtue or great vice, but of a mixed nature, partly good and partly bad. His errors and weaknesses lead him into misfortune; this is precisely the formula for the tragic protagonist in Othello. In accordance with the traditions of classical tragedy, most of Shakespeare\'s famous tragedies involve the fall of a great leader. Othello is a slightly different kind of tragic hero, a general, but not a major figure in the government of the state. In many ways the play is more a tragedy of domestic life rather than of affairs of state. As well as this, Aristotle maintained the importance of the sympathy and pathos felt towards the heroes of a tragic play, this is undoubtedly felt for both Othello and Desdemona in Othello and as such it can be argued that, in principle, Othello has the characteristics of a classical tragedy.



The portrayal of characters is particularly significant to defining the genre of a play as a tragedy. I have previously mentioned the crucial role of the protagonist; in Othello’s case it is clear that we have Othello as the main male character, and therefore it is perhaps the characterisation of him and his development through the plot that is most crucial to the development of this discussion. Shakespeare has created, in Othello, a character consistent with traditional ideas of a classical tragic protagonist. The critic, F.R. Leavis[1] suggests that we should ‘see Othello as a nearly faultless hero whose strength and virtue are turned against him’; Iago himself tells of how he believes that Othello is ‘of a constant, loving, noble nature’, and his disintegration is consistent with Aristotle and other’s ideas of a classical tragedy. It is his classic tragic flaws – his pride and jealousy – that bring his downfall and the audience acknowledge the events in the play with a strong sense of pathos towards Othello, enhancing further his presentation as a tragic hero. This will have been particularly true of the Elizabethan audiences that the play will have first been exhibited to. Othello’s main strengths, such as honour, loyalty to one’s army, and, as Leavis states, being ‘the nobly massive man of action, the captain of men’ are those that the 17th century audience will have held in particularly high esteem considering their appreciation of the need for a general of this nature. When contrasted with Iago, the audience’s favour bears even more strongly to Othello as Iago, with his constant, malicious betrayal of trust is the personification of the epitome of an Elizabethan delinquent. Othello is clearly the classical tragic hero that the title insinuates, even to the end as he is provided with the typical enlightenment of a tragic champion devastated, and the plot and supporting characters that surround him are equal to his role.


Shakespeare’s Othello is consistent not only with traditional, classical forms of tragedy such as the Greek tragedies analysed by Aristotle, but also with his own, Shakespearian tragedies and also Jacobean tragedy. Shakespearian tragedy often follows the simple structure whereby a high status person suffers increasingly as the play progresses, dieing at the end with some revelation of the cause and futility of their fate. They are also political, in that what happens to them affects the society in which they are present; we see this in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. In Jacobean tragedy there is often a revenge plot at the centre of the action, and indeed in Othello we see the formulation of Iago’s revenge as a result both of