Inicial Fórum Peças Otelo Othello: Shakespeare’s Aristotelian Tragedy

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     The great fourth-century Greek philosopher Aristotle described a tragedy as “an imitation of an action of high importance, complete and of some amplitude: in language enhanced by distinct and varying beauties…by means of pity and fear effecting its purgation of these emotions” (qtd. in Kennedy & Gioia 856).  He may very well have been describing the epic Shakespearean drama, Othello.  William Shakespeare’s famous play concerning the downfall of a Moorish general interweaves jealousy, suspense, intrigue, murder, and suicide to create a magnificent tragedy of the highest Aristotelian order. Aristotle prescribed three main ingredients for a tragic drama recipe: hamartia, or a tragic flaw in the tragic hero’s character that brings about his downfall; katharsis, or a purgation of the audience’s emotions so that they feel that they have learned something from the play; and anagnorisis, or the character’s revelation of some fact not previously realized (Kennedy & Gioia 856-857). Shakespeare’s protagonist Othello fulfills all of Aristotle’s requirements for a tragic hero, as Othello is a character of noble status who falls from that position of power to one of shame because of his hamartia. Moreover the plot ofOthello contains a powerful katharsis through its climax and conclusion, and an anagnorisis when Othello realizes that Iago and Desdemona are not who they seemed to be.

                First of all, Shakespeare’s protagonist, the Moorish general Othello, fits Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero. According to Kennedy and Gioia, Aristotle states that a tragic hero must have three dominant qualities: he must be a person of high estate, he must fall from that position into unhappiness, and his downfall must be brought about by his hamartia, or his tragic flaw (856-857).  Othello is not only a successful general in the Venetian army but is also well respected, admired, and well liked.  Contrary to common assumption, “high estate” does not mean that the tragic hero must be royal or even noble; it simply “gives him a place of dignity to fall from and perhaps makes his fall seem all the more a calamity” (Kennedy & Gioia 856).  Since Othello enjoys a position of power and happiness at the beginning of the play, this status makes his downfall from beloved general to despised murderer infinitely more tragic and moving (Kennedy & Gioia 857-858).


                According to Aristotle, however, the tragic hero’s collapse cannot be a simple deterioration from success to misery.  The most distinctive feature of the Aristotelian tragic hero is hamartia; his downfall must be brought about by a character flaw or flaw in judgment that leads to his destruction.  “In Aristotle’s theory of tragedy,” explains The Cambridge Guide to Literaturehamartia is “the mistake or failing which brings about the hero’s downfall.  ‘Tragic flaw’, the usual English translation, can mislead by its concentration on moral weakness – encouraging readers to view Hamlet’s fate as a condemnation of his uncertainty, or Othello’s as a condemnation of his jealousy – since hamartia can also be a matter of ignorance or mistaken judgment” (“Hamartia”).  Thus hamartia is more than a moral weakness; it is a crucial mistake on the part of the tragic hero that causes him to plunge from greatness to grief.  Othello’s mistake as a tragic hero is believing Iago’s treacherous lies about Desdemona’s unfaithfulness.  Instead of investigating the matter further, Othello rashly jumps to the worst conclusions about his wife and believes every lie that Iago whispers into his ear. Although the villain Iago is certainly to blame for bringing about Desdemona’s murder and Othello’s suicide, Shakespeare makes it quite clear throughout the play that Othello’s impulsive behavior and irrational naïveté are the main cause of his miserable end, as Iago himself states at the beginning of the play: “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 the nose / As asses are” (1.3. 376-379).  Iago recognizes that he can use these weaknesses of Othello’s to hasten his downfall. Therefore Othello fits Aristotle’s description of a tragic hero who has descended from high estate to destruction because of his hamartia.


    But the tragic hero is not the only element required by Aristotle for tragedy. Neither is it the only component ofOthello distinguishing Shakespeare’s play from a comedic drama.  A true Aristotelian tragedy also contains what the Greeks called a katharsis, or a purgation that leaves the audience feeling justified and uplifted.  As Kennedy and Gioia point out, this purgation is not necessarily always a positive one (857).  In a tragedy like Othello, where almost all of the characters wind up dead, the audience is certainly not expected to feel happy or cheerful about the play’s conclusion, but they do feel a sort of justification at the lessons learned by the play’s characters and satisfaction in the villain’s punishment.  Elisa Galgut states that, “The concept central to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy – katharsis – has been the subject of much debate, and the traditional readings are modeled on some type of cleansing, medical purging or religious purification” (14).  Moreover, these interpretations assume that the fear and pity aroused by tragedy is purged throughout the play, resulting in the state ofkatharsis. The overall idea behind katharsis, she concludes, is that tragedy effects some sort of transformation in the audience’s emotions, leaving them with a feeling of justification (15).


    Aristotle said, “The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear, and the poet has to produce it by a work of imitation” (qtd. in Galgut 15).  This implies that to feel the satisfaction of a good katharsis in a tragedy, the drama must arouse feelings of pity and fear in the audience and then expunge those feelings through a satisfactory conclusion.   In Othello, Shakespeare certainly moves the audience to feel pity for Othello, for Desdemona, for Cassio, and even for Iago. They also fear for the fate of the happy couple, and realize their worst fears when Othello smothers his innocent wife in a jealous rage.  Once more the audience pities Othello when he recognizes afterwards that Desdemona is innocent and stabs himself in remorse. Even though the play does not end “happily ever after,” the deaths of the unhappy couple and the punishment of the villain Iago bring a sort of closure to the drama.


    The ultimate purpose of katharsis in a tragedy, as Kennedy and Gioia point out, is to purify our feelings, refining them into something more ennobling (857).  The audience may not come away from a production of Othello laughing or feeling particularly cheerful, but they will certainly feel as though they have learned something important and witnessed an epic drama that has affected them morally and spiritually.  This is the purpose of tragedy – to dramatize the weaknesses, despair, and failings of the human spirit and to demonstrate how to better ourselves through this experience.  Through this emotionally charged plot filled with intrigue and conflict, Shakespeare has certainly met all of Aristotle’s requirements for katharsis.



    The last element of Aristotelian tragedy found in Shakespeare’sOthello is anagnorisis, a sort of epiphany or revelation of fact that was previously unknown to the tragic hero.  John MacFarlane states that Aristotle’s literal Greek definition of anagnorisis consists of two parts; “The first part of the definition characterizes recognition as a change from ignorance into knowledge, leading either to friendship or enmity” (367).  Shakespeare brings out this particular feature of anagnorisistowards the end of the play when Othello realizes that his trusted friend Iago has trapped him in a web of lies and has deceived him into thinking Desdemona is unfaithful.  Iago’s wife Emilia cries out before she dies, “Moor, she was chaste. She loved thee, cruel Moor. / So come my soul to bliss as I speak true” (5.2.258-259) and suddenly Othello understands that it is Iago who has misled him, not Desdemona.  This anagnorisis causes Othello to cry, “Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! / O Desdemon! Dead, Desdemon! Dead! O! O!” (5.2.289-290), to stab and wound the villain Iago, and then to kill himself in remorse.


    The second aspect of the Greek word anagnorisis is its more superficial, general connotation.  According to The Encyclopedia Britannicaanagnorisis simply conveys “the startling discovery that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge. It is discussed by Aristotle in the Poetics as an essential part of the plot of a tragedy… Anagnorisis usually involves revelation of the true identity of persons previously unknown, as when a father recognizes a stranger as his son, or vice versa” (“Anagnorisis”).  It is the simple epiphany experienced by the tragic hero as he realizes something significant, like the fact that he has killed the woman he loves for no reason.


    This moment of revelation for Othello is the climax of Shakespeare’s play as everything comes together (or in Othello’s case, comes apart) before the tragic hero’s eyes and the full extent of Iago’s treachery and deceit is made clear to the him.  For the audience, the moment is especially climactic, because we have known the truth all along.  As Roger W. Herzel puts it: “When the man is Othello, a special kind of double vision comes into play: looking through our own eyes, we see the injustice of the action, but looking through the eyes of Othello we see its justice with equal clarity… In tragedy then, we witness an imitation of an action which has a terrible significance of which we are fully aware but the agent is not” (498). The audience knows that Desdemona is innocent; thus, Othello’s baseless accusations and crime against her arouse special pity and loathing.  This makes the Othello’s anagnorisis at the end of the play exceptionally poignant.



    How then does one distinguish a simple play of comedy from a great Aristotelian drama? Aristotle said three dramatic features provide this distinction: hamartia, katharsis, and anagnorisis (Kennedy & Gioia 856-858). Shakespeare’s great play depicting the downfall of a Moorish general through jealousy and deceit is such a tragic drama.   The Greek philosopher’s influence upon the sixteenth-century English playwright is evident in works such as Othello, as Sarah Dewar-Watson points out, “Discussion of Shakespeare’s tragedies is still commonly framed in Aristotelian terms – the fall from greatness, the fatal flaw, the moment of catastrophe… It could be argued that Aristotle has had a hand in defining what is still generally regarded as the core of Shakespeare’s tragic canon” (1). Through the character of Othello as a tragic hero with a fatal flaw, the purgation of emotion through the couple’s deaths and the punishment of Iago, and the epiphany Othello experiences at the end of the play, Shakespeare demonstrates with eloquence each and every one of Aristotle’s qualifications for tragedy. Othello is a tragic drama of epic proportions that has stood the test of time and continues to move audiences with its powerful themes of jealousy, intrigue, betrayal, faithfulness, death, and remorse.





    Anagnorisis. (2013). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from



    Aristotle. (2010). Poetics. In X. Kennedy, D. Gioia, X. Kennedy, & D. Gioia (Eds.), Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (p. 856). New York: Longman.



    Dewar-Watson, S. (2004). Shakespeare and Aristotle. Literature Compass , 1 (1), 1-9.



    Galgut, E. (2009). Tragic Katharsis and Reparation: A Perspective on Aristotle’s Poetics. South African Journal of Philosophy , 28 (1), 13-24, 12.



    Hamartia. (2000). In The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Retrieved from



    Herzel, R. W. (1974). “Anagnorisis” and “Peripeteia” in Comedy. Educational Theatre Journal , 26 (4), 495-505.



    Kennedy, X., & Gioia, D. (2010). Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (6th Compact Edition ed.). (X. Kennedy, & D. Gioia, Eds.) New York: Longman.



    MacFarlane, J. (2000). Aristotle’s Definition of “Anagnorisis” . The American Journal of Philology , 121, 367-383.



    Shakespeare, W. (2010). Othello, the Moor of Venice. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (6th Compact Edition ed.). (X. Kennedy, & D. Gioia, Eds.) New York: Longman.
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