Requirements for a tragic hero:
The tragic hero must be a man according to Aristotle who said, "Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness is inappropriate."
Be of noble birth or elevated status.
Suffer from hamartia, which is a mistake or error in judgment, often referred to as a fatal flaw. He must also usually be guilty of hubris, or excessive pride.
Reversal of fortune brought on by himself: peripeteia.
Fall spectacularly from grace.
Recognize mistake: anagnorisis - and herein lies the tragedy. A great man topples, and the moment he recognizes his error is full of pathos. This leads to catharsis.
Catharsis, or purging of emotions of pity and fear which we feel for the protagonist, is described as follows:
For our pity is excited by misfortunes undeservedly suffered, and our terror by some resemblance between the sufferer and ourselves.
The ideal tragic hero according to Aristotle:
There remains for our choice a person neither eminently virtuous nor just, nor yet involved in misfortune by deliberate vice or villainy, but by some error or human frailty; and this person should also be someone of high-fame and flourishing prosperity.
This is Othello. He is not a deliberate villain, and it is his error or human frailty that causes his fall. He is also a well known general.
What is Othello's fatal flaw?
Is it jealousy? Is he naive? Does he trust too easily? Or has he internalized the prejudicial attitudes to his detriment?
Othello is an outsider as a Moor and foreigner, and perhaps to an extent is naive, but it cannot be ignored that he is a successful general, accepted into Venetian aristocracy.
Does he trust Iago too easily? If trust is the issue, why then does he fail to trust his wife or Cassio? To blame his trusting nature oversimplifies the situation, as he certainly does not trust the people who deserve it.
Can we blame "the green-eyed monster which mocks the meat which feeds it"? Irony aside, the meat which feeds the monster literally is the jealous person himself. Certainly a truer word was never spoken by Iago when he imparted this advice, as Othello's jealousy does mock him in the end as he grieves Desdemona's death at his own hands.
A more holistic interpretation takes all of these attitudes into account.
The Five Act Structure
Act 1 - exposition
I am not what I am - iago
This is the setting and introduction of characters. Venice is introduced at night and in chaos, as we hear of Othello secondhand from Iago and Roderigo who besmirch his name by calling out to Brabantio in the dark. The man we meet in the scenes that follow contrast starkly with the "black ram tupping" Brabantio's "white ewe". In fact, Desdemona is anything but a vulnerable victim of rape, and comes across as confident and in love with her husband, whom she clearly respects.
Iago's cunning is that he is able to take Desdemona's quiet, loyalty, and subvert it by making Othello believe that if she can betray her father, then she may eventually betray him.
Compare Othello in this first Act, with Othello in Act 4. Note how his eloquence falters by Act 4 and he speaks more crudely, much like Iago does.
He claims to be "rude" in his speech in Act 1, but is in fact eloquent. This highlights his insecurity as an outsider in Venetian society.
It is nonetheless important to note that he fulfills the requirement that the tragic hero be "a great man" who falls from grace. He is a general, and although he was once a slave, he is of royal lineage.
Iago's manipulation of Roderigo is almost comical:
put money in they purse.
The Act ends on Iago's soliloquy when he states, "I hate the Moor" and he maps out his plan. His reasons for his treachery are admitted by him as being tenuous, which highlight his Machiavellian character (he does not know for sure if Othello slept with his wife). This soliloquy is important as it highlights how he will direct his own play-within-a-play. It also tells us how he will use Roderigo to finance it. Kenneth Branagh, portraying Iago in the movie, portrays his machinations effectively using black and white chess pieces to outline how he will use Cassio to further his ends.
Act 2 - rising action
Cyprus is a war zone, and the new setting, and this foreshadows the internal "war", or turmoil, that will be triggered by Iago in Othello's life.
Iago manages to pretend to pretend in this act, when he verbally spars with Desdemona about the virtues of women. He jokes that they have none, whether attractive or not, and gets away with joking that they are basically wanton:
There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto, But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do.
Iago tells Roderigo that "The eye must be fed" when speaking of Desdemona, convincing him that she cannot stay in love with the "devil", referencing Othello's race.
He convinces Roderigo that Desdemona "paddled" Cassio's hand. Roderigo is his "purse", and he needs to maintain his buy-in.
In Iago's second soliloquy he promises that he will make a fool of Othello:
Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me For making him egregiously an ass
By the end of the Act his plans are well underway as he convinces Cassio to take a drink, and then gets Roderigo to antagonize him. Iago also manages to involve Montano by speaking of Cassio's weakness with alcohol, so that he acts to defend Roderigo against Cassio, and is injured.
Iago acts as though he is forced to speak against Cassio. Othello, having been roused from his marriage bed, is in bad humour, and is far less eloquent than he was. Iago is indeed starting to get to him.
Cassio: Oh! I have lost my reputation!
Act 3 - climax
The climax is traditionally believed to be in the third act, and in this act we see Othello completely convinced by Iago's false "ocular proof" (the handkerchief with strawberries embroidered on it, symbolic of fidelity in their marriage, which he ascribes magical powers to as a family heirloom).
Most notable is the use of love language between Iago and Othello to knit themselves in purpose as they take their vow (mirroring marriage vows), whilst his love language formerly directed to Desdemona is absent.
I greet thy love Not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous, And will upon the instant put thee to ’t. Within these three days let me hear thee say That Cassio’s not alive.
Iago commits to Othello when he says:
I am your own forever.
This is where Othello's fortunes reverse. From this point on he is irrational and his star begins its descent.
Act 4 - Falling Action
Othello has a fit and is unable to speak, which is what distinguishes us from animals. He is becoming well and truly base, and his language is disjointed and reflects his turmoil before his fit:
It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is ’t possible? Confess!—Handkerchief!—Oh, devil!—
When he strikes Desdemona in front of Lodovico, Lodovico is shocked. However, the fact that nothing is done at this point foregrounds patriarchal attitudes of the time.
In scene 3 we hear the Willow song, which foreshadows what is to come. The song was sung by her mother's maid, whose lover went mad and abandoned her.
The contrast between Emilia and Desdemona is interesting with regard to their different attitudes to infidelity. Emilia is more worldly and says she would risk it if it meant she could make her husband a monarch:
In troth, I think I should, and undo ’t when I had done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition. But for the whole world? Why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for ’t.
Desdemona cannot even say the word "whore".
Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong For the whole world.
Emilia insists that women have sense and appetites like their husbands. She is not as pure as Desdemona, but is frank with her. She has no idea that her betrayal with regard to the handkerchief will have the terrible repercussions which follow.
Act 5 - The denouement
The denouement refers to the "unravelling" and the resolution. This is where the recognition occurs as Othello realises his horrible mistake, Iago's betrayal, and dies nobly. This is all necessary for satisfactory catharsis (purging) of emotion - pity and fear - to take place in the audience.
Iago: This is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite.
We know that Iago is found out, but shows no remorse, cementing his Machiavellian character:
From this time forth I will never speak a word.
Desdemona will not incriminate Othello and when asked who killed her, says:
Nobody. I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. Oh, farewell!
Othello's "Put out the light" speech
The candle refers to her life being snuffed out. Othello honestly believes he is doing society a service by snuffing out her "light" so that she cannot betray more men. Attitudes towards women have changed considerably, and once again patriarchal attitudes are interesting to a contemporary audience. She is treated like a disobedient criminal, and death is considered a reasonable sanction, where the accusations true.
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars, It is the cause. 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. Put out the light, and then put out the light. If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore Should I repent me. But once put out thy light, Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature, I know not where is that Promethean heat That can thy light relume. When I have plucked thy rose I cannot give it vital growth again, It must needs wither. I’ll smell thee on the tree. Oh, balmy breath, that dost almost persuade Justice to break her sword! One more, one more. Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee and love thee after. (kissing her) One more, and that’s the last. So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep, But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly, It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.
Othello's final SPEECH
Othello tries to redeem himself here, and to a small extent perhaps he does. He is eloquent and noble once again, and reminds his audience of the good he once did. He takes the blame, but asks that his wicked deeds are not inflated. He admits that he did not love wisely, and refers to outsiders twice: the base Indian who threw away the pearl like he did, and the Turk, neither of whom are Christian or Venetian. In his anecdote he speaks of how he kills the Turk as an INSIDER, but then he kills himself as he identifies as an OUTSIDER because of his insecurities (race and age), and because of his irredeemable position.
Soft you, a word or two before you go. I have done the state some service, and they know ’t. No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely, but too well. Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme. Of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe. Of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unused to the melting mood, Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinal gum. Set you down this, And say besides that in Aleppo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog, And smote him, thus.
Learn a few useful quotes.
Use a good resource to revise the plot, but do not retell the story in a literary essay.
Grapple with the themes.