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Shakespeare’s Othello: A Tragic Hero Research Paper

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Although his name is associated with Athens, Aristotle was a native of Thrace where he was born in 384 B.C. His father, Nicomathus, who died while Aristotle was young was physician at the court of Macedon and the son’s fortunes were always tied to those of the Macedonian rulers (Frost, 1942/ 1962).

In 368/7, when he was about seventeen, Aristotle came to Athens to study with Plato of the Academy. He stayed there for twenty years. Unfortunately, little is known about the personal relationship between the two greatest thinkers of their time, the one bringing to a close a long, productive career, the other in his formative years. It is suggested that Aristotle had broken off with Plato and was ready to leave the academy before the latter’s death in 348/7 (Frost, 1942/1962).

“As a pupil of Plato, Aristotle and his master stand among the world’s very greatest of philosophers” (Frost, 1942/ 1962).

In 348/7, Philip of Macedon attacked Stagira. Nearly forty, his master dead and his ancestral home destroyed, Aristotle left Athens and the Academy. He was away for thirteen years. He probably taught for three years at Assos in Asia Minor, where he lived under the protection of the ruler, Hermias. There he married Hermias’ niece, Pythias who bore him a daughter. By another woman of Stagira, he had a son, Nicomachus. For another three years, he lived at Mytilene on the island of Lisbos.

At the invitation of King Philip, Aristotle came to the Macedonian court as tutor to the thirteen-year-old heir to the throne. Alexander the Great. From this association which lasted about eight years, Aristotle gained the friendship and protection of the most powerful ruler of his time. When Alexander the Great died, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where he died the following year at the age of about 62 (Kaplan, 1958) William Shakespeare was a strong adherent of Aristotle in his writings. Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare of Stratford –upon- Avon, a substantial citizen of that small but busy market town in the heart of the rich agricultural county of Warwick. John Shakespeare kept a shop and dealt in wool and other produce, gradually acquiring property. As a youth, he learned the trade of gloves and leather worker.

John married Mary Arden, daughter of his father’s landlord. The third of their eight children was William, baptized on April 26 and was probably born three days before. John sent his son to free grammar school. The grammar school provided basic education in Latin learning and literature and a little knowledge of Greek.

There is little documentation for Shakespeare’s boyhood. The most important record is a marriage license issued November 27, 1582 to permit William Shakespeare to marry Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. 1592, the first reference to Shakespeare as an actor and playwright was available. Documents indicate that in 1598, he was a “principal comedian” and in 1603, he was a “principal tragedian”. Shakespeare’s literary activity seems to have been almost entirely devoted to the theater.

In an anthology by Francis Meres, many playwrights are mentioned but Shakespeare is the only name whose plays are listed. From his acting and playwrighting, Shakespeare seems to have made considerable money. He put it to work, making a lot of investments in Stratford real estate. On April 25, 1616, he was buried within the chancel of the church at Stratford (Wright, 1967).

“Thirty-seven plays, as well as some poems are held to constitute the Shakespeare canon. The dates of composition of most of his works are highly uncertain. There is no real proof, for example, that Othello is not as early as Romeo and Juliet, but intelligent guessing leads us to believe that Othello comes later.” (Bryant, 1964).

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s outstanding tragedies (thesis statement). What is a tragedy? “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also having magnitude, complete in itself in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought separately in the parts of the work in a dramatic, not in narrative form, with incidents arousing pity and fear – wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Kaplan, 1942).

Othello is one of the darkest and most passionate of the plays of William Shakespeare. It tells about the nature of love, friendship and betrayal. Set in Venice and the exotic island of Cyprus, the play narrates the tale of Othello, the Moor and Desdemona who dares to love him against the backdrop of war and the quest for power. Then Iago and his wife, Emilia enter their lives. Jealousy and the mad powers of the imagination together form an alliance of conflicting passions and cunning lies that destroy every one ad everything in their wake.”(Studying Othello The Moor of Venice)

The story of the play in a nutshell goes thus: Othello, a noble Moor in the military service of Venice who marries Desdemona, daughter of a senator. Iago, his ancient or standard bearer, a man of mean mind and thwarted ambition, makes Othello think that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The moor smothers his wife and then, confronted with proof of Iago’s perfidy, kills himself.” (Grolier’s Encyclopedia, 1961).

A tragic event is one in which an individual suffers greatly, as Othello did, believing the infidelity of Desdemona. Aware of his plight and learning from it, he struggles against his suffering and its causes.

For Aristotle, tragedy is true because of its unity of plot. The plot of tragedy must proceed according to the laws of probability. The events of the plot must be related as cause to effect. This is true of Othello. Tragedy is therefore “truer” than history wherein things frequently happen by chance. The truth of tragedy is that it imitates the true form of things rather than their accidental appearance. For Aristotle, the true nature of things is the necessary or probable consequences of a given combination of people and circumstances.

One of the most difficult concepts introduced in Aristotle Poetics is “catharsis”. Catharsis is most often defined as the “purging” of the emotions of pity and fear that occurs when we watch a tragedy like Othello. What is actually involved in this purging is not clear, but what is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something common. The spectator recognizes himself/herself and his/her finiteness in the face of the power of fate. What happens, for example, to the character Othello has exemplary significance. To see that “this is how it is” is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions in which he/she, like everyone else lives.

“Othello” has perhaps the simplest plot of any of Shakespeare’s plays. There are no real sub-plots, only very brief comic interludes, and what happens from Act 2 to Act 5 takes place in a period of some thirty six hours. In Othello, events happen in a shorter space of time than is usual with Shakespeare. The classical Greek writer Aristotle recommended that the plays should have what he called “unity of time, place and action. He argued that the action of a play should not take longer than twenty four hours. Excluding the first act which serves as a prologue, Othello comes closer than most Shakesperean plays. The effect on the audience is to make the tragedy more intense. This brings the reader to an explanation of the term “hamartia”.

The Greek word that describes what many people refer to as the “tragic flaw” of the hero of Greek tragedy is ‘hamartia’. Hamartia has a complex meaning which includes “sin”, “error” and “missing the mark”. The “mistake” of the hero plays a significant role in the plot o the tragedy. The logic of the hero’s fall into misfortune is determined by the nature of his/her particular kind of hamartia. In Othello, hamartia is evident in the unreasonable jealousy of the character Othello.

Othello’s belief in Desdemona’s “adultery” is literally illogical since there is no occasion when it could have transpired. Desdemona and Cassio traveled to Cyprus on different ships. From that moment on, there is no time when the two were together. This fact does not only make Othello’s jealousy hard for the viewer to believe in; it shows it to be more insane. The villain Iago makes him believe what is clearly impossible, yet Othello, maddened by his jealousy, cannot see it. Sometimes, the viewer would think that he is stupid to be swayed by the evil of Iago, but Iago is a villain and truly acts the part.

The reversal of the situation in the plot of a tragedy is the ‘peripeteia’ According to Aristotle, the change of fortune for the hero should be an event that occurs contrary to the audience’s expectations and that is therefore surprising; but that nevertheless seems a necessary outcome of the preceding actions.

In the last three acts, the plot moves almost with no interruption towards its tragic conclusion. At the start of Act 3, Othello is happily in love with Desdemona, yet his happiness is about to be ruined. Seeing Cassio with Desdemona, Iago hints at an adulterous relationship between them, although he knows he has no hard evidence. When Othello demands that Iago prove Desdemona’s guilt, Iago speaks to Bianca (Cassio’s mistress) in such a way that Othello thinks he is speaking about Desdemona. Othello then asks Iago to kill Cassio while Othello is to kill Desdemona.

Fully convinced of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, Othello verbally abuses his wife in front of others, who are shocked at the changes in the noble and powerful personage. At this point, it is important to describe the nature of Desdemona’s love for Othello. From beginning to end, she was faithful and true to her husband. Reviving after Othello’s attempt to finally kill her, she declares herself guiltless, but saying, as she dies, that Othello is innocent of her death. Her relationships with Cassio and Emilia were that of friendship alone and it was Emilia herself who defended Desdemona’s innocence, finding out that her evil husband Iago was behind the tragedy.

Anagnorisis, according to Aristotle is the recognition by the tragic hero of some truth about his/her identity or actions that accompany the reversal of the situation in the plot, the peripateia. When Othello sees the truth in Emilia’s statement, he tries to kill Iago, but Iago kills Emilia and flees. Othello condemns himself and commits suicide. After Othello kills Desdemona, Emilia, discovering what he has done, tells him he is wrong in his suspicions of Desdemona. Emilia and the wounded Cassio are able to persuade Othello of the truth before they are killed.

Despite his flaws and faulty decisions, mostly due to the machinations of Iago, Othello is almost fanatically loyal to the state he serves. When he is sure he has been betrayed, he makes a moving speech bidding farewell to his “occupation”. In his final speech, Othello speaks of is great loyalty to the Venetian state which he has disgraced by murdering his wife and of his terrible mistake, before stabbing himself as Iago is taken away to be tortured.

What a waste of lives! That of our hero, Othello and those of the two virtuous women – Desdemona and Emilia. Despite the color of his skin, Othello was a very good soldier to make it to the top as a Commander. He had great beauty of speech which had an inspiring effect on his men and nobility of character. This point is made clear by Desdemona: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” They could have “lived happily ever after.” And Emilia – we can say that being such a moral person, she did not deserve the devil Iago as her husband.

“The practical and formal concerns that occupy Aristotle in the Poetics need to be understood in relation to a larger concern with the psychological and social purpose of literature. Criticism, according to Aristotle, should not be the application of unexamined aesthetic principles, but should pay careful attention to the overall function of any feature of a work of art in its context within the work, and should never lose sight of the functions of the work of art in its social context.” (Forster, 1955). It is hoped that this analysis of Othello might help the reader to review and clarify his understanding of the terms, concepts, categories and interrelationships that Aristotle introduces.


Bryant, J.R. , The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. 1964.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace,Jovanovich, 1955.

Gadamer, H. Truth and Method. New York: Weinsheimer and Marshall, 1995.

Kaplan, J.D., ed. The Pocket Aristotle. Simon and Schuster, 1958.

Studying Othello, the Moor of Venice. 2008. Web.

Wright, L.B., & Lamar, V.A. Readers’ Shakespeare. Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Grolier’s Encyclopedia, Vol. XV, Grolier Incorporated, 1961.

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