Is a hero's tragic flaw still a tragic flaw if it must be created and maintained by someone else?
This dilemma is the root of my belief that Othello's mystique and endurance as a classical work are based solely on the name of its author, William Shakespeare. Without the weight of the name of the world's most famous playwright, this play would be a minor blip in modern academia -- a simplistic tale of bitterness that also reveals some racial stereotyping from the early Renaissance period. Unlike Shakespeare's masterpieces, such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, Othello needs a diabolical villain -- Iago -- to keep the plot rolling. Shakespeare, for once, couldn't fabricate a believable yet surprising sequence of events that would cause the main character to implode on its own: Othello requires the betrayal of a friend to destroy him from without.
As alluded to above, a minor objection I have to Othello is its treatment of race. Othello is an African in Venetian society who has risen to become the leader of the city's armies, in spite of struggles with racism. With this setting, Shakespeare could have given a stunning social commentary on the issue of race in his era. Instead, race is delegated to the back burner after the characters are introduced in Act I.
Furthermore, Shakespeare's treatment of Othello's ethnicity is inconsistent. Othello is very eloquent and intelligent, but everyone speaks of him as if he were a social barbarian. Othello says it himself: "I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have . . ." (Shakespeare III.iii.263-5) I understand that the vernacular was an uncommon literary tool in Shakespeare's time, but it still detracts from the authenticity of the play.
The character of Iago further detracts from Othello's authenticity. Iago is completely diabolical and self-serving, and as such is a 'flat', stereotypical character. His ability to disguise his intentions from Othello (and everyone else) enforces his one-sidedness by revealing his treachery and deceit, and also detracts from his character's believability for the audience.
Iago may just as well be the title character of this play in spite of his flatness. He is truly the protagonist of this play, as his scheming is the basis for Othello's plot. Iago is the instigator of action, and Othello merely reacts. As Iago says himself, "The Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so; / And will as tenderly be led by th' nose / as asses are." (Shakespeare I.iii.380-3)
Iago gets more stage time than Othello: Iago speaks approximately 8,600 words in the play, while Othello speaks about 6,500. In comparison, Hamlet has approximately 12,100 words to King Claudius's 4,300 (the next most verbose character in Hamlet), and Macbeth has 5,400 to his wife's 1,900. Othello is actually the only tragedy of Shakespeare in which a title character does not speak the most, except for Julius Caesar, in which most of the conspirators have more lines than the Emperor. (Statistics)
Iago's stage time is also more revealing than Othello's. The title characters of Hamlet and Macbeth both speak to themselves to give us insights into their minds. In contrast, Iago, not the title character, is the character whose mind we see the most in Othello. Iago gives five asides during the play, while the title character gives only one. (Statistics) Shakespeare also adds the character of Roderigo into the play for Iago to use as a sounding board for the audience. Why doesn't Shakespeare give us a view into Othello's mind instead?
You're probably asking why I'm focusing so much on Iago's ascendancy in Othello when the thesis of this node is that Othello is not truly an enduring work. I believe that the one contributes to the other: Iago's place in this play utterly disrupts the Aristotelian idea of tragedy. According to Aristotle, tragedy must follow a certain pattern: a great person tries to do something that the person believes is his or her destiny or duty, but because of extreme yet believable circumstances and a character trait of the protagonist, that person's actions cause death and destruction to all.
Before going further, I'd like to explain my comparison of Othello to Aristotle's ideas, and incidentally my use of the term 'tragic flaw'. As James Hammersmith writes, ". . . [T]he concept of the tragic flaw is not only an imposition upon the native tradition of English tragedy but is actually an inversion of the principle upon which tragic character in the Renaissance is built." (Hammersmith 246) Hammersmith contends, and I agree, that Shakespeare never intended for his protagonists to have a tragic flaw, but rather a "tragic virtue". This virtue was an attribute that wasn't evil in itself, and was furthermore a great help in general to the person. Furthermore, I believe that the term 'tragic virtue' is a better descriptor of Aristotle's ideas than 'tragic flaw'. I will continue with the term 'tragic flaw', however, because it is the established term for the literary element that will be addressed in this node.
I diverge slightly from Hammersmith, however, on the application of Aristotle's laws to Shakespeare's tragedies. Hammersmith believes that since "Aristotle's Poetics affected Elizabethan and Jacobean England scarcely at all" (Hammersmith 245), Elizabethan tragedy shouldn't be judged according to the Aristotelian standard. Specifically, we shouldn't expect Shakespeare to use the idea of the tragic flaw. In contrast, I believe that the minimal set of Aristotle's tragic laws given above are not guidelines for any particular 'sect' of tragedy -- such as 'Aristotelian tragedy' or 'Elizabethan tragedy' -- but general laws for tragic drama. As general laws, then, they are applicable to any tragedy, including that of Shakespeare. Any enduring tragedy will follow this minimal set. As for the 'tragic flaw' problem, since Aristotle's 'tragic flaw' is basically the same as Hammersmith's 'tragic virtue', continuity is preserved.
Now, returning to Othello and Iago: Othello does not match this minimal set that defines in part that which causes a tragedy to be successful. In Othello, Iago's actions and Othello's reactions cause death and destruction. This is in stark contrast with Aristotle's definition of tragedy, in which the protagonist's own actions, combined with extreme circumstance, cause destruction.
An argument can be made that Iago's actions fall under the category of 'extreme circumstance'. This argument is based on an opinion about the definition of circumstance, so it can't be fully refuted, but I personally believe this idea to be somewhat absurd. It's stretching the definition of circumstance quite a bit to say that it applies to a deliberate, malicious act done by another.
We come now to the question I asked at the beginning of the essay: Is a hero's tragic flaw still a tragic flaw if it must be created and maintained by someone else? Specifically, can Othello's jealousy be called a tragic flaw, or even a tragic virtue, if it didn't exist prior to Iago planting and nurturing an idea in Othello's mind? Conversely, can Othello's loyalty be called a tragic flaw in the Aristotelian sense if it is knowingly and maliciously used by another to destroy Othello?
My opinion is that the answer for both of these questions is no. If you look at some classical examples of the tragic flaw/virtue, such as Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth, a consistency is found in terms of these questions. No one ever creates or exploits a tragic flaw in these examples; the tragic flaw is always a pre-existing condition for the protagonist in tragic drama, and circumstances, not individuals, are always to blame for causing the tragic flaw to destroy the hero. Shakespeare uses the term "star-cross'd" in Romeo and Juliet to describe the inevitability and impersonality of the events in a tragic drama.
One final attempt can be made to preserve the idea that Othello is a tragedy. Perhaps, despite the name of the play, Iago is the hero! Then Iago's tragic flaw/virtue would be his sense of personal injustice, which develops into a thirst for revenge when he is overlooked by Othello to be promoted to Lieutenant. While I actually believe this representation of the play may be the closest to the definition of tragic drama, some problems still arise.
First, as Hammersmith says, "To witness an evil man get what he deserves is perhaps to witness the workings of justice, but it is not to witness tragedy." (Hammersmith 248) Perhaps, in this attempt to make Othello a truly tragic drama, we can say that Iago is 'misguided' by his sense of injustice rather than 'evil'. However, Shakespeare definitely tries to make Iago as representative of villainy as possible.
Secondly, Iago can't really in any way be defined as a 'great person', which is required by Aristotle's tragic formula. Perhaps we can point to his capacity for deceit and manipulation as abilities only an exceptional human could exhibit. I, however, wouldn't call such a human 'great'.
I have one final justification for my belief that Othello is not a true tragic drama, and it also ties in with the character of Iago. Iago, as I've said before, is merely a one-sided character -- hateful, malicious, jealous, and deceitful. With this said, he seems to me to still be the most rounded-out character of the play. Throughout the play, I continuously got this Rosencrantz-Guildensternesque feeling whenever any of the other characters appeared. Iago would manipulate them completely and perfectly and send them off to accomplish his purposes. With one character a stereotypical hateful villain, and the rest of the cast merely tools in his hand, how much of a plot will the play have?
I would have preferred to more discretely analyze each facet of Othello, but Shakespeare's drama is so complex and interdependent that each area of argument partially explains and supports another. The root of Othello's inferiority in comparison to many of Shakespeare's other tragedies is the bard's overuse of Iago and neglect of Othello. This imbalance within the 'character' facet of the play cheapens its tragic drama, undermines its believability, reduces its impact as a racial commentary, and simplifies its plot to a "bad guy gets revenge" story. I had looked forward to reading Othello, as I have enjoyed Shakespeare in the past, but I came away from the play feeling as if it were simply an overrated melodrama.
Hammersmith, James P. "Shakespeare and the Tragic Virtue." Southern Humanities Review 24.3 (Summer 1990): 245-54. On-line publication edited by Joanne E. Gates, 1998. Pagination conforms to print edition. Viewed 4 Dec 2000. <http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/shtragcv.htm>.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. 2000. 1049-1129.
Statistics of Plays by William Shakespeare. Compiled by Hartmut Ilsemann. Hannover University, no copyright date. Viewed 8 Dec 2000. <http://www.unics.uni-hannover.de/~nhtnilse/statist.htm>