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Othello V.’S. Macbeth: Battle Of Tragedy

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In Shakespeare’s plays Othello and Macbeth the audience is presented with two great heroes who both poses a certain character flaw that inevitably leads to their downfall. This is the idea behind a tragic hero; a person of great importance comes to a tragic end because of a serious flaw in his character. Both Othello and Macbeth find themselves on top of the world one moment and being crushed beneath it the next. The next logical comparison to make between two of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes is who is more tragic, who fits the design of the tragic hero more closely, Othello or Macbeth.

In order for one to judge who best fits the mold of the tragic hero, Othello or Macbeth, some criteria for being compared must be decided upon. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle set four main criteria by which one can judge a character tragic or not. First, the hero must be an inherently good person from the beginning of the play regardless of his station in life. Second, the character must be suitable to the idea of the hero. The character cannot be any peasant off the street or a run of the mill soldier who aspires to greatness; someone noble and believable must be employed. Third, The character must be true to life; his actions must be believable and not slanted to one extreme or another. Aristotle’s final criteria for judging a character tragic or not is character must be consistent in his actions throughout the play (Jancar 255). If a character saves a baby from a burning house and returns it to its mother in one scene he cannot take another baby and dash its head against a stone in anger in another. Also the audience should be able to somewhat guess the characters next action, to understand where the character is coming from and his motivations throughout the play.

Although not part of his four main criterions Aristotle did have three other, lesser criteria which would help enhance the tragic aspect of the work. First, the character should be of higher standing than the common man of the time, usually noble of birth and commanding great respect from others of his station. Second, the writer should make an attempt to keep all of the aspects of plot and character believable. Aristotle did not believe in such things as divine intervention or other mystical creation as ways to unify a shaky plot. Finally, while remaining believable, the character should be larger than life itself to add to his overall appeal to the audience.

Another less often-sighted aspect of Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero is the idea of catharsis. Catharsis is the mixing of fear and pity in the reader so the two opposing emotions cancel each other out, sometimes leaving the reader with a sense of wholeness (Jancar 253). This idea of catharsis is defiantly present in Othello and is culminated when Othello realizes what a terrible thing he has done and feels a heartbreaking sorrow and grief. Compare this ending to Macbeth’s and it is hard to feel any pity for Macbeth given his cold cruel nature throughout the work.

Othello fits Aristotle’s first criteria to a tee right from the outset of the play. When Brabantio, alarmed by Iago’s announcement of his daughter’s marriage to Othello, sends a troop of armed guards to attack Othello, but Othello does not become angry but treats both the soldiers and Brabantio with respect. While traveling towards the senate house, Othello even tells the guards to keep their sword tips out of the dew so they do not rust somewhat out of respect for his new father-in-law. Upon arriving at the senate one of the senators calls him “the valiant Moore” (Shakespeare 1.3.52). Upon hearing the charges being levied against Othello the senate and duke himself cannot believe that Othello has perpetrated any crime. In fact, the senators first believe Brabantio to be speaking of some common thief who came and stole his daughter. Another aspect of Othello’s good character is shown in this scene, his self-control. At no point during Brabantio’s hysterical raving and wild accusations does Othello become angry or defensive. He knows that he has done nothing wrong and that his reputation and worth will speak for themselves. Othello tells his trusted friend Iago, “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul/ Shall manifest me rightly” (Shakespeare 1.3.31-32). After his tragic downfall Othello once again regains a measure of his good character and realizes what a terrible crime he has committed. To set things right he sentences himself to death and carries out his final judgement upon himself. Othello is truly remorseful and realizes what a fool he was to believe “honest Iago” and the lies he told. He cries out asking how Iago, the “demi devil,” could capture his soul that way. This realization of error only helps to add more tragedy to an already tragic scene.

When one looks at Macbeth, however, in regardless to his good nature and character it is hard to find many examples in the work itself from Macbeth. At the beginning of the play Macbeth is being talk about by a few different people who all regard him as noble and goodly of nature. Macbeth is also a general in his countries military, like Othello, who is respected by the people under him, as well as his peers, as a man of great worth to his country. When Macbeth is first introduced though we see him being confronted by three witches who bring visions of grandeur. One would think this a good omen, but Macbeth seems unnerved by the whole thing. Macbeth’s friend, Banquo, asks him “good sir why do you start so...” wondering why his friend is not delighted and rejoicing at the news of his eventually becoming king. The reason could possibly be that he has had thoughts of killing his king and taking the thrown, and these witches are able to read his mind and it worries him. One redeeming scene where Macbeth seems good is after he has killed Duncan; he cannot comprehend what he has done, and the thought of his terrible actions almost drives him insane. Following this scene Macbeth’s noble side is not displayed again, and only his wife offers any testimony to his kind nature; she states that he is too full of the milk of human kindness and he might not be able to murder Duncan. Macbeth barely fits Aristotle’s first criteria for a tragic hero since the audience never sees his good side, but only hears about it second hand.

Othello and Macbeth both fit Aristotle’s second criteria perfectly. Given the time period, in which they lived, their position as generals of their country armies defiantly qualifies them as suitable heroes. Othello had been a soldier since he was seven years old, and Macbeth was made the Thane of Cawdor out of respect

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