Comparative Essay – Othello/Macbeth Tragic Heroes
Unit 1: ‘Many critics have argued that Othello is not a true Shakespearean tragic hero. Explore the idea that Shakespeare intended to make Othello fit the criteria of his tragic hero with comparison to Macbeth. ’ By Marina Georgallides A tragic hero, determined by Aristotle, must show a nobility and virtue of a certain magnitude however, their path to happiness should be ceased by their destructive vice (Harmartia- the flaw that eventually leads to their downfall).
Peripeteia, the point where the character’s fortune changes, must evoke a state of pity and fear amongst the audience, and give above all, a didactic message. The outcome of this characteristic should result in a complex but sole instigation of both the hero’s Catharsis (a cleansing of emotion which is described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience) and Anagnoris when they reach their moment of realisation. It can be argued that Shakespeare fully abided by these rules in order to make a distinction between his characters’ prosperity and misfortune.
Fintan O’Toole (post modernist critic) argues that Othello “is not tragic, merely pathetic”.
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However, Othello will be identified as a far greater tragic hero than Macbeth, illustrating how Shakespeare fully intended on creating a tragically heroic character such as Othello. As the play progresses, Othello’s monumental Harmartia is gradually revealed; his sense of inherent jealousy is implemented by Iago, the Machiavellian villain, and his gullibility makes him susceptible to it.
Once he becomes convinced that his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, his jealousy does indeed feed itself just as Iago ironically warns, “the green eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on” (Iago- Act 3 Scene 1), leading to the hero’s monstrous behaviour. The apparent alliteration, “death and damnation” (Act 3 Scene 3) and “waked wrath” (Act 3 Scene 3), reveals the great influence that Iago has upon Othello as his linguistic eloquence and his mental state rapidly collapse, resulting in both his use of evil imagery in language and in action, the murder of Desdemona.
The hubris, argued by Helen Gardner (in 20th century) “is heroic because Othello acts from inner necessity”, appearing to show Othello’s desire to remake the world into a better place, an act that is heroic “in its absoluteness”. This admission of ethical duty perhaps may have encouraged a contemporary audience to pity Othello as his act, although terrible in itself, is nevertheless wonderful in its own manner of righteousness. Othello therefore appears to be more honourable since his wrong doing was out of love and not of hatred, something for which Gardener seems to forgive Othello.
A contemporary audience would argue that gender also plays an important role in Othello as men were regarded as stronger and wiser, making it more forgivable of Othello. However, a 21st century audience would view women as equally as important as men, showing that Desdemona’s murder was underserved and unforgivable of Othello. Dr Johnson (1765) declared that Othello was a “very useful moral”, as the protagonist shows how one can be stifled by naiveté; the repetition of “honest Iago”, the external forces of evil, combine to cause Othello’s tragic manifestation and thus, his downfall.
Macbeth’s Hamartia is his lust for power that eventually and unsurprisingly leads into his downfall. Arthur Kirsch (1984) highlights Macbeth’s “emptiness of his desires and the insatiability of his aspirations”. Macbeth becomes infatuated with the witches’ prophecy as he soon discovers how real it is, allowing him to be somewhat fixated on the idea of murdering the King and soon after, Banquo. “Macbeth does murder sleep”- the use of third person indicates the exponential deterioration of his mental state after killing an innocent King, as a result of his unquenchable thirst for power; essentially in itself more than one of the seven vices.
Both Iago and Macbeth in this case, are the embodiment of the vices, both jealousy and greed, as opposed to Othello, who is only influenced by the vice itself. J. A Bryant (1961) argues that, “Macbeth is a wholly negative character who possesses the capacity for good but chooses to commit evil instead”, illustrating that his ulterior motive wasn’t for the good or righteous, as opposed to Othello, but for the selfish rise to power, evidently making him less of a tragic hero; he merely chooses evil because it works to his own advantage rather than making the world into a ‘better’ place.
Both a Shakespearean and a modern audience would believe that Macbeth, like the Devil, has willed himself into a desperate position whereby he is captive of nothing except the providence he chose to ignore. In fact, a further aspect of his Hamartia is arguably his supposed lack of masculinity that he is constantly belittled and ridiculed for by Lady Macbeth. The use of a rhetorical question in “Are you a man? ” indicates her ability to manipulate him into believing that he is not ‘strong’ enough to murder.
This too, plays an important but yet, not as dominant, role in Macbeth’s downfall. The second element combined to create a tragic hero is Peripeteia where the downfall from a virtuous status to a catastrophic one is evident. Regardless of however many times Othello is referred to as the “Moor” by Iago, a derogatory term used to highlight his race, a Shakespearean audience will still be amazed by his aristocratic virtue as he possesses the verbal eloquence to assert to the signiors in the rule of three adjectives as “potent, grave and reverend”.
In Act 3 Scene 3 however, Othello makes more references to the “devil”; a reflection of Iago’s evil nature being imparted upon him, as “goats and monkeys” are images that connote the devil. His eloquence of poetry in Act 1 is in stark contrast to his rather barbaric and politically incorrect behaviour in Act 3, particularly to a 21st century audience as his act of “striking her” (Desdemona) across the face is an incredulous act that is totally unacceptable to feminists now but may have been deemed as common or even deserved to a contemporary audience of the 16th century.
His affection dramatically changes towards Desdemona and it can be argued that Othello “allows manipulation and jealousy to lead to his self-destruction”- Tasha Kelley (2010) Othello simply cannot help the jealousy that he feels within him, no matter how much of an influence Iago is upon him. At this point, Othello is entirely convinced and absolute in the killing of his wife; the use of hyperbolic language in “I’ll tear her all to pieces” emphasises his sheer mercilessness since “all” of Desdemona will be killed.
Unlike Othello, Macbeth changes rather early on in the play, and the only real evidence that the audience sees of his nobility is what others say about him. In Act 1 Scene 2 Duncan expresses, “O valiant cousin, worthy gentleman”; the use of positive adjectives to describe Macbeth would give both a Shakespearean and modern audience a good impression of Macbeth even before he is revealed in the play.
On the other hand, current and contemporary audiences would also notice that the other characters in Macbeth are the ones who prove Macbeth’s honorary class, and not he for himself. After one consecutive scene, Macbeth’s Peripeteia is extremely abrupt that it can be portrayed as almost non-existent. “If Chance will have me King, Why Chance may crown me, Without my stir”- immediately one gains the impression of his violent underlying tone that is implied by the use of the word “stir”, revealing to a contemporary audience that his destructive intentions are intrinsic.
According to Aristotle, there must be a clear distinction between the character’s prosperity and misfortune; Macbeth, as a tragic hero, does not condition himself to these rules religiously enough and it therefore, can be argued that his downfall is far too early on in the play for an audience to fully grasp his nobility. Whereas, Othello’s greatness is explored thoroughly for two whole Acts, allowing an audience of any time period, to understand that his noble qualities are innate.
A contemporary audience, for example, would understand the reason for Othello’s downfall much better than they would with that of Macbeth’s as the play enables him to develop as a character and thus, show his true intentions, which are in this case, to love and protect Desdemona. Alas, an alternative interpretation of Macbeth of a Shakespearean audience would be that he is an incessantly complacent man who, by all means, allows arrogance to corrupt his mind even in the first scene of the play.
The most famous of quotes where Macbeth visualises a dagger, represents his wavering resolve and lust for power that slowly descends into his madness. “Is this a dagger, which I see before me…”Act 1 Scene 7, the use of a rhetorical question illustrates Macbeth’s hallucination of seeing an object that is clearly not there, which in comparison is a major downfall for someone who was deemed to be “valiant” at the start of the play.
Susan Snyder (1994) states that “the play provides no answers to the questions it raises about the relative culpability of the witches’ equivocal predictions and Macbeth’s potential to commit murder”. Evidently, there is no real justification or distinction in Macbeth’s downfall other than his sick ambitious need for power. The third criterion that qualifies a tragic hero is Anagnorisis, where the protagonist acknowledges his/her own flaw that has led them to their downfall.
After all the accusations and trauma that Desdemona has been through, her last and most angelic words being, “Commend me to my kind lord- O, farewell! ” This suggests that she is a saint for forgiving all that Othello has done to her and shows just how much she loved Othello; a contemporary audience would ultimately feel pity for her as she is not the one to blame. However, a different view of Desdemona and what she represents has emerged over recent years amongst modern audiences; feminist and new historic critics have examined her character in relation to the society she moves in.
Marilyn French (1982), explores the masculine and misogynistic value system within Othello, and despite Desdemona’s assertiveness in choosing her own husband, French emphasises that Desdemona “must be obedient to males” and is “self-denying in the extreme” thus when she dies she is a stereotype of female passivity. Once killing Desdemona, Othello begins to express his sincere remorse for his wrongdoing through the repetition of alliteration.
The use of alliteration in “Cursed, cursed” and “cold, cold”, Act 5 Scene 2, reveals how ashamed he is with himself for committing such a crime as he is emphasising it through the repetition of consonance sound “c”, and above all, goes closer to prove his tragic hero status. Through his two speeches, Othello is able to elaborate on the fact that he is wrapped with guilt; the rhyming couplet of: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way by this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss. ” epitomises his Anagnoris as he realises his sheer love for Desdemona with what remains within him, a flare of eloquence.
In stark contrast, there is no real evidence of Macbeth’s Anagnoris, and in fact, he behaves rather arrogantly about the witches’ predictions because he believes that no real harm will happen to him. In Act 5 Scene 3, Macbeth expresses a very short speech in which no lamenting or mourning is apparent; “I have lived long enough; my way of life Is fall’n into the sear” is but a mere acknowledgement of his circumstances rather than realisation of his tragic flaw. A Shakespearean audience would notice that perhaps Macbeth has not fully repented for his mistake and is therefore, in terms of Aristotle, not a true, classified tragic hero.
Macbeth is determined to continue fighting for his life whereas traditionally a tragic hero, such as Othello, should ultimately understand their downfall in exchange for their life. In Act 5 Scene 5, Macbeth does in fact have the verbal eloquence to express himself even in a state of supposed despair. The use of personification in “Life’s but a walking shadow” reinforces the state of his ignorance to register his own wrong doing and therefore, both a modern and contemporary audience can advocate that they do not feel the same sympathy as they do for Othello.
Finally, the last criterion of a tragic hero is Catharsis; the point at which the tragic hero cleanses his heart and the audience’s too. Othello, despite all that he has been through, returns to the articulate and passionate man, and for that, an audience can feel as though the previous trauma of Desdemona’s death combined with his own wicked imagery is obliterated and washed from them. “And very sea-mark of my utmost sail” is an example of how Othello is able to speak in iambic pentameter even in such a horrific mental state, reinforcing an audience’s perception of how truly noble and titled he is.
Most honourably, he is not afraid of killing himself in the name of love; he simply “kisses Desdemona, and dies”, making him appear as more of a tragic hero than Macbeth, who fights to live on. He leaves the audience feeling bereaved and pitiful because, despite his jealousy, he ‘loved Desdemona too well’, a crime that was surely too harshly punished. Although, Macbeth’s death is rather less tragic and more heroic in the sense that he refused to kill himself by “falling on my sword”; an audience would regard him as more honourable towards himself.
Before Malcolm kills him, he partly recognises his wrong doing in the little speech that he gives; “Of all men else I have avoided thee: But get thee back, my soul is too much charg’d With blood of thine already”. Irrespective of the fact that Macbeth didn’t kill himself as he should have done, the imagery of “blood” reveals the extent of which Macbeth fights like a true soldier till the end. Unfortunately, as a modern audience, we cannot feel the same sympathy as we do for Othello as he neither recognises his flaw nor kills himself because of it; an imperative required for a true tragic hero.
Macbeth is a rapid play that does not allow the main protagonist to develop as a character and for that reasoning; Macbeth lacks many of the imperative qualities needed within a tragic hero such as Peripeteia and Anagnorisis. Without a single doubt, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic heroes as fought for by Helen Gardner and Dr Johnson, regardless of Fintan O’Toole’s perception of Othello being “merely pathetic”. We can advocate otherwise that in fact Othello fulfils all four criterias of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero.