William Shakespeare in his 1604 play “The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice” presents the audience with a protagonist who loses his faith throughout the course of the play. The abstract noun faith has a two-fold meaning, defined by either a complete trust in someone or something, or a strong doctrinal belief in a selected religion. This essay will aim to assess and challenge the view that Othello’s gradual loss of faith throughout the play is the tragic hero’s flaw.
In the given extract from Act 4 Scene 2, the audience witnesses a confrontation between Othello and Desdemona, where Othello makes his wife swear upon her loyalty to him: “swear thou art honest.” One can see here that Othello’s need for reassurance from his wife, exerts a sense that his faith towards her commitment to him is beginning to deteriorate.
In response to Othello’s request, Desdemona states that “Heaven doth truly know it.” Desdemona emphasises her honesty here with religious imagery. Shakespeare wrote “Othello” in an era which had great religious influence, meaning that the morals of the time where to be of a high standard. With Desdemona’s inclusion of “Heaven” here, she is using ideas of a higher power to support her statement, however, one can see that Othello disregards this as he says, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.”
Through this extract, there is a repetition of the motifs of heaven and hell, which reflects how in Othello’s mind, the two juxtaposing worlds merge and form a reality. When this is considered, one can see how Othello has lost both his doctrinal faith, and his faith in Desdemona’s fidelity towards him.
Shakespeare simultaneously uses both his own form and Aristotle’s form of tragedy. Regarding Aristotle’s form, a tragic play must accommodate a protagonist whose hamartia, a fatal flaw, leads to their subsequent down fall. A Shakespearean tragedy requires that this hamartia should lead to the death of the tragic hero. In the context of “Othello”, the tragic hero possesses several flaws, however arguably, Othello’s flaw is his loss of faith.
Not only does Othello lose faith in his marriage with Desdemona, he also loses faith with the myriad of relationships he has with other characters, the most fatal being Michael Cassio. At the beginning of the play, the audience is told by Iago that Othello has chosen Cassio to be his lieutenant, however after a drunken brawl with Roderigo, which Iago set up, Cassio is revoked of his position.
In Act 3 Scene 2, Othello says “Cassio… nevermore be an officer of mine.” The adverb “nevermore” used by Othello adds a definitive tone to what he declares, highlighting how Othello truly has lost all confidence in his former lieutenant. Furthermore, as Othello exits the stage, he says, “’tis the soldiers’ life to have their balmy slumbers walked with strife.” Shakespeare’s addition of rhyme to Othello’s speech serves to make his decision of demoting Cassio as irrefutable and definite.
Subsequently, it is this demotion that motivates Desdemona to appeal to her husband about Cassio and attempt to make him change his mind about removing him from his position. At the beginning of Act 3 Scene 3, Desdemona says, “Be assured, good Cassio, I will do, all my abilities in thy behalf.”
Following this, Desdemona pleas to her husband regarding Cassio, however, this fuels Othello’s thought of Desdemona’s infidelity with the very person she wishes to protect. Othello’s loss of faith with both Cassio and Desdemona, allows Iago to take control of Othello’s mindset, without the influence from other sources. This eventually leads to Iago viciously manipulating Othello into believing in Desdemona’s apparent infidelity, and subsequently the death of the husband and wife.
Although Othello’s hamartia could be his loss of faith, it could be argued that it is his jealousy instead that is the protagonist’s fatal flaw. From the outset of the play, the audience can see that Othello has substantial self-control and hold himself to a high standard. This is evident when he tells Iago, “Let him do his spite: my services which I have done the signory shall out-tongue [Brabantio’s] complaints.”
However, throughout the course of the play, Iago slowly breaks this down, initially by mentioning jealousy to him, “O beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eye monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” The metaphor of jealousy being a “green-eyes monster” gives the abstract noun a life like quality, which in turn enhances the danger of it. From here, Iago begins to manipulate Othello into believing that his wife has been adulterous with Cassio, mentioning that Cassio is in possession of a handkerchief which was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona.
The handkerchief, which was given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian, then later given to Desdemona by Othello, can be seen to hold a two-fold symbolism. Firstly, it was used by Othello’s mother to “subdue [Othello’s] father entirely of her love”, meaning that the handkerchief becomes a symbol of marital fidelity, however, it could also be seen as a symbol for Desdemona herself, and her faith and chastity for Othello.
Thus, when Othello finds out that Desdemona is no longer in possession of the handkerchief, it is almost symbolic of their marriage declining, and the trust between the two breaking away. In Act 3 Scene 4, Othello asks Desdemona for the handkerchief, “Lend me thy handkerchief… Here my lord… That which I gave you… I have it not about me… Not?… No, faith my lord… This is a fault”
Othello: Lend me thy handkerchief.
Desdemona: Here my Lord.
Othello: That which I gave you.
Desdemona: I have it not about me.
Desdemona: No, faith, my lord.
Othello: This is a fault.
One can see the clear tension between the two, which is established by the stichomythia used by Shakespeare. After this altercation, Emilia points out “is this man not jealous?”, highlighting how Othello’s jealousy is beginning to surface, and how other characters are starting to notice his suspicious attitude. This is then furthered in Act 4 Scene 1 when he “strikes” Desdemona in front of Lodovico, a kinsman of Brabantio. Othello’s descent into a Jealous mindset begins to tarnish his once honourable and admirable reputation, leading the tragic hero to his inevitable downfall.
In the concluding scene, and the structural climax, of the play, Othello murders his wife by smothering her. One can see how his jealous mindset led him to believe that Desdemona committed adultery against him, thus he thought she needed to be punished for her actions, “a murder which I thought a sacrifice”.
The verb “sacrifice”, serves to present how Othello believes that he is serving justice by killing his wife however a sacrifice is usually linked to religious purposes, thus indicating that Othello may be doing this for a religious reason. When this is considered, one can see how Othello is abdicating the responsibility of killing his wife and emphasizing how he is going to do it for a spiritual reason, rather than a personal one.
However, after the murder took place, Othello experiences a very heavy anagnorisis, as he realizes that in fact, Desdemona had remained faithful to him the whole time. Othello’s newly found guilt subsequently leads him to suicide, as he cannot cope with what he has just done.
Shakespeare concludes the play with Othello’s suicide, and the Iago being taken away for torture, leaving the audience with very little to no catharsis at the end of the play. This emphasizes Shakespeare’s message of the dangers of jealousy, and the detrimental effects it can have on somebody, and the people surrounding them as well.
In conclusion, one can see how Othello’s loss of faith in Desdemona and the people around him, and his jealous mindset, both lead him down a path of destruction and dismay. However, one can see that it is the protagonist’s jealousy that causes the most ruin for him, subsequently causing him to murder his wife, and then himself.