Saturday, 21 April 2012

Othello as a Shakespearean Tragedy

Tragedy, roughly defined, is a tale of suffering represented on the stage. Like most things of value in European culture, tragedy is of Greek origin. The theme of the tragedy may have been originally determined by its association with the worship of the dead. A Shakespearean tragedy is a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate. Othello is undoubtedly a tragedy of this kind. The hero is a man in high estate, and his life is marked by exceptional calamity. The calamities in Shakespearean tragedy are closely connected with character. The tragedy is brought about by the tragic flaw that Othello possess, which is the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy along with pride which overrules any commonsense. It, thus, causes the protagonist to make an error in judgement leading him to his downfall and eventual death. The downfall of the central character is the main concept of the tragedy.

Othello is not only the most masterly of the tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction is unusual. And this method, by which the conflict begins late, and advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the catastrophe, is a main cause of the painful tension. ‘Catharsis’ is an important part of Shakespearean tragedy which moves the readers and attempts to put them in the protagonist’s shoes. Shakespeare does this by attacking the issue of love, which is a very touchy and emotional subject.

There is no subject more exciting than sexual jealousy rising to the pitch of passion; and there can hardly be any spectacle at once so engrossing and so painful as that of a great nature suffering the torment of this passion, and driven by it to a crime which is also a hideous blunder. Such jealousy as Othello's, converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man. And this, with what it leads to, the blow to Desdemona, and the scene where she is treated as the inmate of a brothel, a scene far more painful than the murder scene, is another cause of the special effect of this tragedy. Turning from the hero and heroine to the third principal character, we observe that the action and catastrophe of Othello depend largely on intrigue. Iago's plot is Iago's character in action; and it is built on his knowledge of Othello's character, and could not otherwise have succeeded. Iago easily sees through Othello as he exclaims: “The moor is of a free and open nature” and this known vulnerability can be played on to exploit his other weaknesses, such as jealousy. The skill of Iago was extraordinary, but so was his good fortune. Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which anyone but Othello would have asked, would have destroyed Iago's plot and ended his life. In their stead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at the moment most favourable to him, Cassio blunders into the presence of Othello only to find him in a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when she is wanted to complete Othello's deception and incense his anger into fury. All this and much more seems to us quite natural, so potent is the art of the dramatist; but it confounds us with a feeling that fate has taken sides with villainy. One of Othello’s other flaws is not being able to read people, in a way that he ends up trusting the wrong people, which works against him. Othello, we have seen, was trustful, and thorough in his trust. He put entire confidence in “honest Iago”, who had not only been his companion in arms, but, as he believed, had just proved his faithfulness in the matter of the marriage. This confidence was misplaced greatly when he is made out to be a cuckold by Iago, through his wife’s “ignorant sin”. Othello is seen to be consumed with pride too. When Iago brings more evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity Othello reacts in a very different and violent way:
“Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damn’d to-night; for she shall not live.” [Act IV, Scene I, 190-202]
This statement stems from Othello’s pride in being a man of high standing who will not be cheated on considering his previous background, upbringing, position and superiority. In this sense Othello is largely responsible for his own tragedy, letting his pride overshadow all else. Miscommunication also plays a major role in the tragedy of the newlywed couple, and this confusion is helped along by Othello’s wrong interpretation of situations:
 “That she with Cassio hath the act of shame
A thousand times committed;” [Act V, Scene II, 240-250]
When Desdemona pleas for her life she exclaims: “Alas, he is betray’d, and I am undone!” [Act V, Scene II, 90-100] and Othello, presuming only the worse, assumes this is her admitting to her infidelity. Without questioning or listening to any possible explanation, blinded by his ego, and thought that he is the only one who could be possibly right, he fails himself. Another example of misunderstanding is when Cassio talks of Bianca, and instead of considering it being anyone but Desdemona, he thinks only the worst, digging him deeper into his accusations and self-absorption. His interpretations and misunderstandings, which he helps along, are definitely a source of his own tragedy.

Shakespeare generally and usually develops his tragic action through conflict. Othello is involved in two different conflicts. The first of these is against Brabantio and here he triumphs. The second of these is against Iago and here he is overcome. The main tragic conflict with Iago is never felt to be a conflict at all. Iago has the situation well in hand from the beginning. However, after chance favouring Iago for a pretty long time turns against him unexpectedly. This may help to restore our faith in the impartiality of chance. The calamitous or catastrophic conclusion of a Shakespearean tragedy generally involves a whole state in disaster. At the end of Othello, we do not feel that Venice has suffered seriously. It partakes, therefore, somewhat of the nature of a domestic tragedy. Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy characterized by the tragic hero, and his flaws, and tragedy resulting in his unfortunate end. Many scholars acclaim Othello as Shakespeare’s most perfect tragedy because it encompasses all of the elements of a tragedy so wonderfully. The guilt and wrong felt by Othello after he realizes his errors in judgement are incomparable to the drama in Shakespeare’s other tragedies.

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