Type: Process Essays
Sample donated: Katherine Moody
Last updated: June 23, 2019
Tragedy is one of the main three genres of Shakespeare’s plays, alongside histories and comedies. In classical Greece and Rome, tragedy is viewed as ‘an intense exploration of suffering and evil focused on the experience of an exceptional individual” (McAlindon, 2003). Essentially, tragedies are a genre in which the main character descends from a state of fortune and well0being to a state of hardship and suffering. This downward spiral can occur as a result of a range of many different factors, such as a supernatural higher power, destiny and fate, or due to the character’s own tragic flaw. The protagonist of a tragedy is known as a tragic hero, these characters typically tend to be important, powerful people of a high social status.
Some of Shakespeare’s classic and well-known plays which fall into this category include Othello and Hamlet. Othello is a general in the Venetian army, who is tricked by his deceitful friend Iago into believing his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. Othello is outraged and kills Desdemona, only to find out that he had been deceived and Desdemona was innocent. Hamlet follows the story of Prince Hamlet of Denmark, whose father is killed. Hamlet’s father visits him as a ghost and urges him to avenge his death, however Hamlet finds himself unable to act. Both of these plays fit the criteria of Shakespearean tragedies. However, Othello arguably has some characteristics of a comedy, which makes it unusual among other tragedy plays.
According to Bradley (1919), Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all have a ‘fundamental tragic trait’, which he describes as ‘a fatal tendency to identify the whole being with one interest, object, passion, or habit of mind.’ This means that in Shakespearean tragedies, the tragic hero possesses a fatal flaw, when the hero is placed in a morally compromising situation, this tragic trait is what ultimately leads to their demise. The same can be seen in Othello, whose tragic flaw is argued to be his intense jealousy. Iago is jealous that Othello has given Cassio a higher place than him, therefore he convinces Othello that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. This drives Othello into raging jealousy. This false jealousy is what leads him to suffocate his wife, demonstrating his fall as a tragic hero. This is not to say that Othello did not love Desdemona, as he states ‘”Speak of me as I am..
.Of one that loved not wisely but too well..
.” (Act V, Scene II), here Othello is expressing that he loved Desdemona very deeply, but he was not wise about it as he allowed Iago’s false words to overpower his own logic and reason without suspicion. Hamlet’s flaw is his inability to make decisions and act upon them. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and urges Hamlet to avenge him, Hamlet is faced with a moral dilemma about killing Claudius.
This is demonstrated when Hamlet has an opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying, however Hamlet dismisses this opportunity as he thinks it is the wrong time to kill Claudius ‘in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and season’d for his passage’ (Act III, Scene III).Here Hamlet considers that it is not true vengeance if he kills Claudius while he s praying, as he will go to heaven, so instead Hamlet claims he will kill him when he is ‘at gaming, swearing; or about some act that has no relish of salvation’.This tragic flaw of inability to act is what leads to his fall as his procrastination is what leads to the deaths of his mother, ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. This links to Bradley’s point about tragedy that as the story progresses it is clear that ‘calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men, and that the main source of these deeds is character.’ (Bradley, 1919). According to (McAlindon, 2003), Shakespeare often portrays tragic heroes in a way which makes their actions seem ‘plausible and potentially forgivable’ as the tragic act is often one which is ‘the product of ab unbearable access of passion, or of temporary madness’. This provokes pity within the audience, as if the act is out of character for the tragic hero and is seemingly just a reflection of the character’s temporarily damaged state of mind, it seems more excusable. The audience can also consider other factors that lead to the tragic hero’s actions, for instance they may be in emotionally distressing circumstances.
For instance, Othello is a coloured man who faces prejudice as Iago refers to him as a ‘an old black ram’ in comparison to Desdemona being a ‘white ewe’, Barbarito also confronts Othello and accuses him of tricking Desdemona into marrying him through witchcraft. Othello has also been manipulated and wrongly influenced by Iago, a man who he had no reason not to trust; Iago betrayed his trusting nature and pushed him to the act which lead to his fall. Therefore, as Othello was living in an environment in which others around him were trying to convince him that he is somehow unworthy, as well as the fact that he was manipulated by Iago, this can have the effect of making the act of killing Desdemona appear more forgivable to the audience. This idea can similarly be applied in the story of Hamlet, as he has faced difficult circumstances such as the grief of his dead father, the shock of returning for the funeral only to find that his mother has already remarried, as well as his supernatural experiences which lead to his fall as a tragic hero.
The figure of manipulation in Hamlet can be seen as Hamlet’s father, as he is the one that appears to Hamlet and encourages him to avenge his death. Had it not been for this, Hamlet may have not spiralled into his tragic fall, therefore the audience may have some sympathy towards Hamlet. This sympathy is further encouraged by the idea that Hamlet can be held accountable for many deaths, simply because he was indecisive about killing one person, possibly because he wanted to be sure that Claudius was responsible for his father’s murder before killing him for no reason. This links to Aristotle’s argument that the purpose of tragedy is ‘catharsis’ of emotions, which is the process of releasing emotions.
In tragedies, this often occurs when there is moment of clarity for the protagonist. In Othello, this moment takes place in Act V, at which point Othello learns that he was being deceived by Iago all along. Initially, Othello is outraged at Igo, then he cries as he realises he has killed his innocent wife, he proceeds to kill himself. This part in the play provides the audience with catharsis, as it excites pity and fear, cleansing them of these emotions.
Catharsis also takes place in Hamlet, in Act V Scene II, when Hamlet is in a sword fight with Laertes as the audience know that Claudius and Laertes have secretly planned to kill Hamlet. The audience sympathises with Hamlet as he has agreed fight fairly, as opposed to Laertes and Claudius. Another key feature of Shakespeare’s tragedy is the detailed experiences of suffering of the protagonist. It is argued that Shakespeare intends for his characters to be ‘remembered less for their errors and msdeeds than for the sufferings and griefs they endure’ (McAllindon, 2003). The causes of suffering in his plays vary widely and can range between the character’s own fatal flaw, external influences,or both of these factors. This can be seen in Othello, as Othello’s fatal flaw of jealousy is what causes him to kill Desdemona.
However, this intense feeling only arose in him after Iago planted a seed of doubt in hi mind and framed Desdemona and Cassio. Therefore, it can be argued that the cause of Othello’s suffering is both his fatal flaw and the influence of Iago.This can also be seen in the case of Hamlet, as his fatal flaw was his inability to act. However, the only reason Hamlet would have had to face this moral dilemma in the first place is that his father as murdered by Claudius. Therefore, it is arguable that Hamlet’s suffering is not only a result of his own internal state but also the fact that Claudius murdered his father.
Although Outhello is commonly viewed as a tragedy, it differs from Shakespeare’s other tragedies as a lot of the play resembles a Shakespearean comedy, as comedies usually carried themes such as marriage, love and deception and disguises. These topics are evident in Othello as the play concerns the love and marriage of Othello and Desdemona as well as Iago’s deception to Othello. By including elements of comedy in the play, Shakespeare prompts the audience to expect a happy ending, The effect of this is that when the play ends in tragedy, the prior comic elements highlight the downfall even further. However, the main thing that distinguishes Othello from comedies and places it in the genre of tragedy, is that the play does not have a happy ending as Othello kills Desdemona and then himself. A comedic tone is apparent in Act II, Scene I where Iago is making ignorant statements about women while talking to Emilia and Desdemona, as he states ‘She never yet was foolish that was fair; for even her folly help’d her to an heir’ to which Desdemona responds ‘Those are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i’ the alehouse’, implying that Iago is trying to be funny.
Comedy is included further in Act III Scene IV, in an exchange between Desdemona and the clown. However, it can be seen that the small role of the clown is insignificant in comparison to the rest of the characters in the play as well as the other tragic events which take place. Due to this, despite the fact that there is some comic relief in the play, it is still clearly a tragedy. To conclude, it is evident that both plays Hamlet and Othello are tragedy plays, as they both have the characteristics of what a tragedy play requires. They both have a tragic hero, Hamlet and Othello, who each have their own fatal flaws; Hamlet’s fatal flaw is his inability to act while Othello’s is his false jealousy.
Both characters fell from noble positions as a result of not only their own tragic flaws but also external forces, in Othello’s case he was manipulated by Iago, while Hamlet was encouraged by his father’s supernatural presence. Although some aspects of Othello may appear to be comedic, it is evident that the play fits into the genre of tragedy rather than comedy, due to the tragic nature of the ending.