Is Othello a Tragic Hero?

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

'Othello' remains one of William Shakespeare's most illustrious and controversial works. The play traces the downfall of the title character, who infamously succumbs to jealousy and manipulation. The question remains: Is Othello a tragic hero?

To Trust or Not to Trust

William Shakespeare's 1603 tragedy, Othello, remains one of the most important and debated plays in all of English literature. The story of Othello, Moorish, or Arab Muslim, warrior newly married to Desdemona, the daughter of an Italian duke, explores issues that we grapple with even today. It is a play about sex and jealousy, racism and manipulation.

Above all, it is about learning when to trust and when not to trust. What makes Othello a tragic hero is that he lacks discernment when it comes to those he most loves. He condemns those who are most loyal and loving, while investing his trust in the one who least deserves it. In the process, he destroys himself and those around him.

William Shakespeare

Love, Loyalty, and Manipulation

At first blush, Othello seems to have it all: he has a bride whom he loves and who loves him. He has wealth and social connections. He is celebrated far and wide for his valor in war. Othello's excellence as a military leader has propelled him to the highest ranks of the Italian army. He is largely respected and embraced, if with some initial reluctance on the part of Desdemona's father. Certain characters in the play resort to ethnic and religious slurs, but their opposition is relatively minor in comparison to the welcome he receives. Othello's charisma, prowess, and authority promise to overcome, sooner or later, whatever prejudice he faces.

What makes Othello a tragic hero, despite the rampant success he enjoys and the bright future that would seem to lie ahead for him? According to Aristotle (384-322 BC), a tragic hero is one who possesses extraordinary, almost superhuman, talents and attributes, but whose incredible gifts are ultimately destroyed through a hamartia, or 'fatal flaw'.

Bust of Aristotle

The Power of War

Othello is an incredible warrior. His daring feats align him with some of the greatest heroes of all time. It's not easy to overcome ethnic or religious prejudice, but Othello's successes as a war commander are all but impossible to ignore. Like a true hero, Othello's exceptional gifts bring the promise of a breathtaking future ahead. Othello is unprecedented and unexpected. His talents seem to usher in a new day of hope for the Dukedom, the military he leads, and the family he seeks to create with Desdemona.

The Power of Language

In addition to Othello's preeminence as a man of action, he is a man of discourse. His capacity for language is what captures Desdemona's heart. In Act I, Scene III, he explains how his stories earned her love: 'My story being done,/She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:…She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd,/And I love her that she did pity them.' Othello is not just a doer: he is also a talker and a thinker. There is an ancient adage that victory in war depends foremost on the ability to capture the hearts and minds of your enemies. Like a true hero, Othello casts a spell and makes you want to buy into the vision he conjures. He conquers not only with swords, but also with words.

Othello and Desdemona

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