Since the writing of Shakespeare’s play in the 1600’s there has been a great deal of controversy over the character of Othello. Critics have debated the extent to which he can be deemed a “tragic hero”. Bradley and Leavis; two critics of “Othello”, both have strong, yet largely differing views on Othello and how far he can be viewed as a true tragic hero.
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Bradley argues that Othello never reaches a complete peripateia “The Othello of the fourth act is Othello during his downfall. His fall is never complete but his grandeur remains almost undiminished”. This demonstrates that Bradley accepts Othello’s downfall is never truly complete. He sees Othello as “Virtually faultless” shown when he states, “Othello does not belong to our world, and he seems to enter it we not know whence – almost as if from a wonderland”. This displays how Bradley sees Othello as a pure, faultless figure, however during the period in history it is set, murder and deceit is a thing of Hell and enough to guarantee your place there; a move a “pure” figure would not fall victim to. Shakespeare’s choice to structure the play into five acts also shows how he possibly wanted to foreshadow Othello’s tragic fate showing that from the start he would be a victim of fate.
Leavis argues that Othello is “Overly aware of his nobility” and thus lacking in the requirements of a true tragic hero. We see this when Leavis says that “Othello’s “like a pontic sea” speech is overblown and self dramatising” which I agree with. Leavis states that “Eloquence is a form of arrogance”. This can be seen when Shakespeare sets Othello up to give a poor speech, stating he is “rude in his speech” however continues onto voice an extremely well worded dialogue. This is a good example of Shakespeare’s intelligence concerning structure how he can use it to add effect to the language in the play. He deliberately sets the audience up to hear Othello deliver a poor, badly worded speech; so when he delivers an articulate and well crafted one instead, it carries even more effect. We also see how Leavis analyses Othello’s virtues and is able to interpret them as flaws. Social stereotypes of that period in time also are contradicted. A black warrior should be brutal, relentless and mindless- not articulate. A.C. Bradley best reflects what I think; Othello murders his wife- this for me is peripateia.
Concerning hamartia, Bradley argues Othello as a “faultless hero”, whose strengths are used against him. Bradley states that Othello’s only trait of character is his trust. He believes Othello’s trust to Iago is shown through his words “My ancient, a man he is of honesty and trust to his conveyance, I assign my wife”. This can be seen as an example of Shakespeare using language in the play to leave subtly concealed hints illustrating flaws in Othello’s character (by regarding his wife as a possession). Yet perhaps people of Shakespeare’s era would not find this too shocking. With regard to Othello’s action, Bradley exonerates Othello from all guilt when he says that “[Othello’s] opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him”. This demonstrates that Othello was not the only one that was deceived by Iago. Another example of Iago’s manipulation of other characters in the play can be seen through Iago’s manipulation of Cassio. When Iago says “Your Dane, your German and your swag bellied hollander – drink, ho! – are nothing to your English”. Despite Cassio trusting Iago to take care of him if he got drunk, Iago allowed him to get into a fight. This helps prove that it was not through fault of Othello that he was manipulated so much as it was through the strength of Iago’s will power. This is similar to my opinion of Othello in terms of hamartia. I do not believe that Othello is “virtually faultless”, but I do agree that it was not through fault of Othello that he was manipulated by Iago, it was more to do with Iago’s immense will power.
Leavis argues Othello’s character is more complex. He states “Othello’s trust is not strong or “absolute” as Bradley proposes, he justifies this by mentioning the speed in which Iago uses language without evidence to convince Othello Desdemona is unfaithful “false to me!”. Iago tries to use this in act 5 to justify his wrong doings “I told him what I thought” “you told a lie, an odius damned lie”. Therefore trust cannot be Othello’s fatal flaw. This is seen in Othello’s inconsistent treatment of Cassio, Iago and Desdemona”. Looking at this, I agree with Leavis (regarding hamartia). Leavis sees Othello as a character that is full of flaws. He argues that Othello is “egotisticalâ€¦with a habit of self-approving dramatising.” This puts forward a very strong view of Othello. We can see what Leavis is talking about when Othello says “My parts, my title and my perfect soul”.
Whether Othello experiences anagnorisis remains debatable. Bradley argues that in killing Desdemona, “Othello sacrifices Desdemona to save her from herself in honour and love”. However due to the social and historical influences acting on the play I have to disagree; as far as Shakespeare’s concerned, Othello signed a one way ticket to hell by committing murder, he was doing it more through anger than to satisfy some “good intentions”. Another example of this is when Othello says “She must die, else she’ll betray more men” which seems like loose justification for his evil deeds. Again this demonstrates honour and nobility on Othello’s part. Bradley justifies Othello’s actions by placing all of the blame upon Iago’s head, which he supports with Othello’s impassioned cry “But what serves for the thunder! Precious Villain.” Subsequently, Bradley does not attempt to see that Othello achieves anagnorisis, as he is not to blame for the tragedy that occurs during the play.
We can see that Bradley is inclined to link anagnorisis with Othello as he believes he “Is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection”. However Bradley’s argument in terms of anagnorisis is weak as it contradicts his argument of hamartia.
Leavis argues Othello struggles to reach anagnorisis as he does not take full responsibility for his actions, and fails to see the faults and traits within his character. “But he remains the same Othello, he has discovered his mistake but there is no tragic self discovery”. This shows Othello has made no inclination that he has realised his mistakes or the faults within himself.
Leavis states when Othello does show regret it is self-dramatisation not genuine remorse. “Othello’s noble lack of self knowledge is shown as humiliating and disastrous”. This shows Othello’s self-dramatisation is inappropriate. Leavis argues Othello does not acknowledge his “gullibility and stupidity” during his downfall. He shows how Othello has misconceptions about prior events, how he genuinely believes his actions were honourable “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour”. Yet when Othello says “I would not kill thy unprepared spirit; No heaven forefend, I would not kill thy soul” shows how Shakespeare uses language to underpin that Othello is in living knowledge of a higher force, Shakespeare has deliberately added these lines, maybe to show that Othello is willing to go to Hell to keep his earthly stature in tact.
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Whether catharsis takes place is debatable. Bradley’s argues that by Act 5, “Othello’s anger has passed, and sorrow has taken its place” this suggests Othello meets Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero concerning catharsis as by this point we generally we feel sorry for Othello. Bradley says that “His sufferings are so heart rendering that he stirs, in most reader, a passion of mingled love and pity.”
As a reader I feel that I am purged of all negative feelings towards Othello by the end of the play. However it will have been perceived very differently when it was written; therefore different reactions to this play will have occurred over every century and decade it has been about for.
Leavis dismisses Bradley’s argument, believing he is “Clouded by his manifestations of perfect nobility”. He states the audience would only feel sympathy for Othello because he is strongly manipulated by Iago. Leavis believes Catharsis does not occur as Shakespeare writes Othello’s final speech in third person, thus keeping the audience at a distance, throughout Othello is “preoccupied with his emotions rather than Desdemona in her own right”. We see this when Othello says “Speak of me as I am”. This shows that despite the tragedy, Othello is still concerned with his own losses and his reputation, rather than the loss of his wife.
Othello is easily manipulated and jealous to the extent that he murders his wife; however it is obvious that he is emotionally distraught about this. Without the knowledge that Iago is a deceitful villain, we would hold nothing against Othello and we only know this as we view the play from an all-seeing perspective. He was misled, used and manipulated through his immense trust in Iago. But is trust not a virtue? Despite not all the requirements of a tragic hero being met he is without a shadow of a doubt a hero, who falls victim to a great tragedy that culminates in the demise of him and his wife. This to me is a tragedy, and therefore I personally believe that Othello, despite all of his traits and errors is a tragic hero.
Word Count: 1578
By Harry Chamberlain
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