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Seminar Paper, 2016
9 Pages, Grade: 1,7
2. The Tragedy Othello
2.1 Definition of Tragedy
2.2 Othello is a Classical Tragedy
3. Comic Aspects in Othello
3.1 Definition of Comedy
3.2 Love in Othello
3.3 The Comic Nature of Iago
The Mixing of Genres: Comic Aspects in William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Othello
Countless critics have tried to dissolve behind the complex matrix of William Shakespeare’s dramatic plays. One of the most controversial plays is Othello. Written rather late in his creative period, Othello became one of the “Big Four” tragedies of Shakespeare, together with Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth (Danson 115). Othello raises questions of identity, jealousy, revenge and trust, therefore it has always been labelled a tragedy, however many critics claim that some of Shakespeare’s tragedies have a powerful comedic matrix. Accordingly, genre classifications are almost never exclusively distinct, as there have developed infinite subgrenres and blendings of genres that make it hard to place one particular play amongst one of those many categories. In fact, Lawrence Danson argues that genres could be “culturally specific categories which change with the changing times, always recognizable yet always shifting with shifting currents of literary and cultural history” (Danson 4). Still there are useful approaches as how to assign a specific play to one – or more – genre(s).
This following term paper deals with generic definitions as well as with comic aspects in Othello, how they are entangled in the tragic action and how they serve to shape the tragedy. Firstly, I shall try to assign Othello to a specific category, namely tragedy. Therefore, Tragedy and Comedy will be clearly defined. In chapter 3, the play will be analysed in terms of its comic aspects. The focus is primarily put on the subject of love in Othello and secondly on the multi-layered character Iago. The aim of this chapter, as it is of the whole term paper, is to illustrate that the tragedy Othello contains comic features.
In fact, many more comic aspects can be found in Othello, however, this would go beyond the scope of this term paper. This term paper is only going to give a small insight into the comedic pattern of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello.
Firstly, one has to note that there is not an universal law by which genres or subgenres can be categorized. This is no new knowledge, of course. Discussions about genre and their definitions have been going on forever. Danson asks: “…what good is a category if its defining characteristics, by which we recognize it as a category, do not remain constant?” (Danson 4). However, the first known and elaborated theory about drama, especially about tragedy and comedy, which “guided the composition and critical interpretation of tragedy for more than two millennia” (Simpson 1998), is The Poetics from the Greek philosopher Aristotle and it is this theory which I will use as a basis for my further argumentation.
In The Poetics, Aristotle defines the core of tragedy as follows:
The imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. (Aristotle qtd. in Cuddon 926)
In essence, tragedies are serious in subject, complex in their language and structure and their aim is to arouse ‘pity and fear’ on the side of the audience (cf. Simpson 1998). Aristotle moreover states that a tragic plot should revolve around one noble, individual, mostly a male individual of high social rank (cf. ibid), who moves towards isolation, social breakdown and, in case of Shakespearean tragedy, death, eventually. At this point it is noteworthy that all of Shakespeare’s tragedies end in death of their heroes. Aristotle calls this noble personae the ‘tragic hero’, who in himself carries a specific ‘tragic flaw’ (Simpson 1998). Consequently, I will apply these criteria in the following chapter to Othello in order to define it as a tragedy in the Aristotlean classical sense.
Othello fully satisfies the defining characteristics of tragedy mentioned above. Othello himself is one of these ‘tragic heroes’. Aristotle’s ‘tragic hero’, the protagonist of the tragedy, is a person who does experience misfortune by his own fault, through misjudgement or due to their personal ‘tragic flaw’ and, eventually, provoke therewith their own tragic fate (cf. Simpson 1998). To begin with, Othello is a noble man in a high social rank as he is a general of the armies of Venice and basically morally good, meaning he has no malicious features in his character. Secondly, Othello can be called a ‘tragic hero’ as he carries a ‘tragic flaw’, which is undoubtedly jealousy. His jealousy, Janette Dillon suggests, roots in his insecurity due to his black skin tone. He is “racially an outsider to the Venetian state” (Dillon 78). Iago uses this insecurity as a foundation to build his despiteful plan to induce Othello’s downfall. Influenced and manipulated by Iago, Othello’s jealousy becomes stronger throughout the play until Iago fully convinces him of Desdemona’s infidelity which is the climax moment that leads to the catastrophe of the play.
Hence, in respect of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, one can conclude that Othello’s downfall is not only brought upon him due to his inherent tragic flaw but also due to his great error in the misjudgement of Iago. Othello’s downfall, due to his noble rank and his sympathetic nature, evokes ‘pity and fear’ amongst the audience, which is, as mentioned above, essential for tragedies. Finally, the play ends with a ‘catharsis’ (Simpson 1998); a resolution of the pity and fear one feels at seeing Othello tricked into murdering his wife, as Iago is discovered and condemned and Othello fully understands what has been done to him.
In spite that I hope this previous chapter served to depict Othello unambiguously as a tragedy, my central topics in this paper, as already mentioned in the introduction, are the comic aspects in Othello and how they are engaged in this specific tragedy.
For this purpose, comedy, as tragedy has been earlier, has to be clearly defined:
Primarily, comedy serves as a mirror of life and in contrary to tragedy that is not the lives of kings and queens and people of high ranks, but the lives of ordinary people and thus, deals with the problems ordinary people usually are entangled in (cf. Simpson 1998).
Meanwhile, a comedy does not inevitably have to be funny to be labelled as a comical play (cf. Snyder 4). However, it has to be considered that specific subjects, such as social and moral conflicts, might have been amusing for the readers and spectators of that time (cf. McEvoy 125). Furthermore, the conventions of comedy ask for a happy ending. Shakespearean comedies, for instance, typically conclude in marriages between the characters.
Lastly, comedy can be divided into several sub-categories. The most commonly known of them is the subgenre ‘Romantic Comedy’:
In a typical romantic comedy the two lovers tend to be young, likeable, and apparently meant for each other, yet they are kept apart by some complicating circumstance (Simpson 1998).
In essence, the main feature the action is concerned with here is the passionate love between two sympathetic characters that has to overcome several hindrances, for example differences in class or ethnicity or parental disapproval in order to finally be united in the end (cf. Simpson 1998).
In my following discussion I will investigate two criteria that most of the Renaissance comedies have in common: First, the subject of love, which I will try to apply to Othello and secondly I will investigate the matter of disguise, more precisely the role of the comic manipulator with particular focus on Iago .
One of the most striking features in Othello is the passionate and sincere love between Othello and Desdemona, thus Othello is often called a “lover’s tragedy” (Danson 116) and it is the comic function of this love I will examine in this chapter. I will focus on the oppositions of the two lovers and how they are the said hindrances lovers have to overcome in comedies. First of all, I have to note that these oppositions have been existent before Othello’s and Desdemona’s reconciliation but only after their marriage have they become hindrances for both of them.
The most obvious opposition is perhaps the difference in their ethnicity and thus in their appearance. Desdemona is a white female while Othello is a black man. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasize here that the hindrance is not within their relationship but comes from the outside. It is never Desdemona but other characters in the play that seem to have a problem with Othello’s skin tone. This becomes particularly evident in the first Scene of Act I, where Iago and Roderigo talk about Othello and Iago names him “the Moor” (I.i.57) and later in this scene even expresses feelings of disgust for Othello’s marriage with a white woman: “an old black ram / is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.88-89). Likewise, Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, refers to him as “the Moor” (I.i.164) when he is in anger about Desdemona’s secret marriage with Othello that was encountered without his permission. He also expresses feelings of disgust at the thought of a black man marrying his white daughter and even accuses Othello of tricking Desdemona into this marriage:
Bra. Judge me the world, if ‘tis not gross in sense,
That thou has practis’d on her with foul charms,
Abus’d her delicate youth, with drugs or minerals, (I.ii.72-74)
Desdemona, however, assures her father that her love for Othello is sincere. Danson even suggests that Desdemona reveals what “would appear as conventionally masculine authority” by marrying Othello despite her father’s disapproval (Danson 63):
Des. … you are lord of all my duty,
I am hitherto your daughter: but here’s my husband:
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge, that I may profess,
Due to the Moor my lord. (I.iii.184-9)
Moreover, later in this scene, Desdemona emphasises that she does not care for his
skin tone but “penetrating through the blackness and strangeness, she saw Othello’s true visage in his mind and subdued her heart to that essence, his ‘very quality’” (Snyder 78).
Consequently, one can conclude that this sincere love between Othello and Desdemona is of romantic, comic nature: two passionate lovers, whose love is disapproved of but, eventually, gets accepted. But it is this love, that comedy would treat as a relieving completeness, which in Othello becomes the substance of tragedy (cf. Snyder 81).
Iago is undoubtedly the controlling figure in Othello. Douglas Bruster suggests in his essay “Comedy and Control” that this controlling character brings on the play’s happy end by the control of information through disguise or deceit (cf. Bruster 217). Likewise, Snyder argues that comedy is a love story in which magicians and disguised heroes manipulate events to produce happy endings (cf. Snyder 19, 21). Thus, Iago can be seen as such a controlling, manipulative figure of comedy, however, in his case a rather perverted version of it (cf. Snyder 76). He is controlling the characters through manipulative speech and actions.
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