Whose tragedy is it anyways?

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In the reading of Othello, many scholars have questioned whether Othello is even the tragic hero or the main character of the play. Instead, some believe it is Iago who fulfills the role of the tragic hero. Defined by Aristotle, the model of a tragic hero requires certain characteristics. Among these include: high status or birth, an error in judgment, a reversal of fortune brought about by the hero’s own error, the recognition that this reversal was due to the hero’s error, and that the hero must have excessive pride. Both Othello and Iago fulfill multiple characteristics of this model, and it is my belief that instead of being one or the other, both can be considered tragic heroes in their own right.

Othello admittedly provides a stronger case for being a tragic hero. Having the rank of a general, he definitely comes from a place of high status. Othello makes the hero in judgment of trusting Iago over his own wife’s faithfulness. He becomes overcome with jealously because of this error, and as we see through the events of the play he winds up killing both Desdemona and himself after realizing what he has done. Othello also is shown to have great pride throughout the play, which helps lead him to his end. For example, after realizing the truth he remarks, “Why, any thing/ an honourable murderer, if you will/ for nought did I in hate, but all in honor” (V. ii. 293-295). Othello keeps his pride to very end, stating that he was merely doing what he perceived to be the right thing. The fact that Othello kills himself at the end of the play could also be seen as his unwillingness to live with how wrong he was.

While Othello’s case for being a tragic hero is almost straightforward, Iago’s is a little more subtle. Iago is shown to be simply a soldier at the beginning of the play; he was even passed over for a promotion to Othello’s lieutenant. However, through his deceiving of Othello, we see he is in fact promoted to the rank of lieutenant. In conversation with Iago, Othello declares, “…Now art thou my lieutenant” (III. iii. 479). So while Iago did not have high status at the beginning of the play, we see that he does achieve a high status through the events of the play. We know the rank of lieutenant carries with it some degree of high status by the news Lodovico bears, “ For, as I think, they do command him home/ deputing Cassio in his government” (IV. i. 244-245). Cassio was to help rule over the island in Othello’s absence and thus connects the rank of lieutenant to one of at least moderately high status. Iago is clearly shown to be a man of great pride, as he often states one of his motives to be that he held lower status than people of whom he did not hold a high opinion. As the events of the play follow through, we see Iago’s scheme is revealed and he is imprisoned as a result; fulfilling his fall from status. Iago also realizes that the culmination of his schemes has the possibility of causing his fall when he states, “This is the night/ that either makes me or fordoes me quite” (V. i. 129-130).

As we can see, both characters have the possibility of fulfilling the role of a tragic hero. Othello fits the role in a more straightforward and easily seen manner. Iago instead fulfills the role in more subtle and deeper ways. Instead of declaring one over the other, I think it is far more interesting to take the “why not both” approach and analyze the parallels between the two.

-Justin Kemp

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