Othello's Greatness

Othello’s Greatness

Introduction

Aristotle argued that a tragic hero should be highly respected, prosperous and from an illustrious family. At the start of the play, Othello is certainly an eminent character who commands the admiration of the audience.

Nobility

Othello claims he is descended from “men of royal siege” in both “life and being”. Not only has he inherited the powerful authority and titles of royalty in his “life”, the reference to “being” suggests he also has the dignity and nobility expected of such a significant rank.

The protagonist mentions his lineage to Iago as proof of his greatness and that he will not lower himself to Brabantio’s poisonous “scurvy” and “provoking terms”.

The General

The eponymous hero has an impressive history of important victories for the Venetian government which he euphemistically calls his “services” in (1.ii). He repeats this idea in his final monologue in (V.ii) when he calmly says “I have done the state some service”. This repetition is Shakespeare’s way of reminding the audience of Othello’s greatness and suggesting the tragic hero should retain our admiration.

His reputation as a trustworthy soldier is immediately confirmed when Cassio arrives on stage to tell Othello in (I.ii) that he is “hotly called for” by the most powerful man in Venice, the Duke.

In (1.iii), Othello reminds the “most potent, grave and reverend signiors” of his “feats of broil and battle”. The rhetorical flourish in the alliteration here adds to the epic quality of his “dearest action in the tented field”.

Wisdom

It is clear that Othello’s knowledge and understanding of the battlefield is impressive, but the character’s wisdom is also evident in the way he placates Brabantio in (I.ii). When the “Officers with torches” arrive to arrest him, Othello’s eloquent and persuasive imperative to “keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” epitomises his composure under dangerous pressure. There is a lovely contrast between the violent freshness of the “bright swords” and how they will simply be left to “rust” because they are not needed.

Shakespeare may be alluding to the moment when a “band of men and officers” confronts Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and he tells Peter to “Put up thy sword into the sheath” (John 18:1-11 Holy Bible: King James Version). If this connection was intended, then the playwright wanted to the audience to view Othello as incredibly noble and innocent.

There is also a possible sentimental allusion to the opening scene of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” when Benvolio attempts to quell the clash between the Montagues and Capulets, demanding that they “part, fools!” and “put up your swords”. Perhaps the famous actor Richard Burbage, who played Othello in the original productions in The Globe, was previously cast as Benvolio and the line is a tribute to the peacemaker.

Even if these echoes were not the author’s intentions, the actor’s poised delivery of the lines are enough to confirm the character’s noble “being” and greatness.

Othello reiterates his demand for a peaceful resolution in the line “hold your hands” after Brabantio orders his officers to “lay hold upon him” and “subdue him at his peril”. His response continues to be calm and measured: “were it my cue to fight, I should have known it without a prompter”. This theatre metaphor reduces Brabantio to a stage hand while comparing the protagonist to an actor who does not forget their lines and movement. Confidence is always an attractive trait in the leading player.

Epithets

Writers use epithets as a shortcut to define their characters quickly to the audience. The adjective “valiant” is associated five times with Othello. For example, when enters (I.iii), the First Senator and, importantly, the Duke welcome him with this praise.

Significantly, Othello admits he is “not valiant” to Emilia in the final moments of the play, completing his reversal from the courageous General to the fallen hero.

Romantic Hero

Shakespeare’s depiction of the protagonist as a romantic hero adds to his greatness, especially to a Renaissance audience who appreciated tales of courtly love. In (I.ii), he declares that he is in “love” with “the gentle Desdemona”. There is a pleasant sweetness in the simplicity of the language used in this line.

Addressing the “signiory” in (I.iii), he declares that he would forfeit his life if he was guilty of any crime: “let your sentence even fall upon my life”. His “unvarnish’d tale” about how they fell in love is persuasive. Shakespeare positions the audience to react favourably to the tale through the Duke’s positive response: “I think this tale would win my daughter too”.

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