William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice

Thesis: William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice features power, hamartia, downfall, catharsis, and anagnorisis characteristics of Aristotelian tragedy revealing the author’s perception of a tragic play and a tragic hero.


  • Introduction
  • Aristotle’s description of tragedy
  • Elements of a tragic hero

3.1 Othello’s power

3.1 Othello’s flaws

3.2 Othello’s downfall

3.4 Catharsis

3.5 Anagnorisis

4. Aristotelian tragedy

5. Conclusion

William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice as a tragedy


Aristotle, the greatest Greek Philosopher refers to tragedy as an imitation of a highly important action with a purpose of bringing out liberation out of the audience by arousing feelings of fear and pity and eventually eradicating such fears. Aristotle identifies five features of a tragedy. These includes a tragic hero being powerful and noble, experiencing downfall out of own flaws, presence of catharsis, an element of bringing out emotions out of the audience to help them learn something from a play, and anagnorisis. These features are demonstrated in the Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. In the play, Othello is powerful and respected. However, his flaws causes him to kill his innocent wife. The audience witnesses a drama where Lago manipulates Othello leading to the death of the wife. In addition, fear and pity are aroused throughout the play qualifying it as an Aristotelian tragedy. William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice features power, hamartia, downfall, catharsis, and anagnorisis characteristics of Aristotelian tragedy revealing the author’s perception of a tragic play and a tragic hero.

Aristotle Description of tragedy

Aristotle is one of the greatest philosophers in Ancient Greece. His search for ideals forms in explaining reality nature, he explained the ideal form of tragedy which is still used by playwrights as a guidance. In the famous Greek study of Aristotle in dramatic art, Aristotle relates tragedy to metrical forms such as epic and comedy. He argues that like in poetry, tragedy is a form of imitation what he calls mimesis. He explains that the aim of tragedy is bringing out a spectators’ liberation with a purpose of arousing their sensations of fear and pity and eradication such emotions. This enables them to leave a theatre with feelings of being uplifted and cleansed with a deeper understanding of men and god’s ways. The liberation is from watching and witnessing moving and disastrous change in the prosperity of the character of a play. In his poetics, Aristotle explains what he looks for in a tragic her (Galgut, 2009). First, a tragic hero must be an individual of high status who the audience have a high regard for. Second a tragic hero must fall from the high status position into an unhappiness situation. The downfall is brought by a tragic flaw. This means that the fall is a result of free will not by mere fate or by accident. It is the fatal weakness, the flaw, which causes the tragic hero to commit a crime. Other features include catharsis and anagnorisis.

Elements of a tragic hero

For a protagonists to be a tragic hero, Aristotle explains that he must be of a high status that the audience admires. This is to arouse fear and pity by changing the status of the protagonists. For being of a high status and then the status is changes, the play is able to trigger such emotions amongst the audience. As Aristotle explains fear is aroused by the misfortune of a fellow human being and pity is aroused by the unmerited misfortune. In summary, Aristotle identifies an ideal protagonist as a highly prosperous and renowned person, who is not primarily just and virtuous. This person’s misfortune is brought up by some error of frailty or judgement rather than depravity or vice.

Othello’s power

Othello, the Moor of Venice is a tragic hero as he has a noble status and has a high position in the society. Othello spent his life as a mercenary soldier and ended up a general in the army, helping the Republic of Venice. He is entrusted to joining the fight against the Turkish invasion. Even though he is one of the immigrants onto the republic, he was given the position of a General of the Army in Venice by merit alone. Because of his excellence in job, he is accepted in Venice. In response to the threat of Ottoman Turks threats to Venice, Othello was needed. This shows how he is respected and the audience surely admire him. When he was accused of seducing Brabantio’s daughter into marriage by witchcraft, the Duke of Venice and the senators gives him chance to explain himself (EMC Corporation, 2005). Considering he is black, this shows that he must have a high status in the society to be treated this way by the leaders. Having high status does not mean that one must be noble and royal. It means that one is treated with dignity from where he would fall making the fall a calamity. Apart from being a successful general, he is well liked, admired, and respected. His happiness and power gives him a position, to fall from a beloved general to a hated murdered, a more moving and tragic ending.

Othello’s flaws

Aristotle holds that the tragic fall of a tragic hero cannot be from a simple weakening. Hamartia causes the tragic fall. This means that the downfall is a result of a flaw in judgement or in character leading to the destruction. Though some people view hamartia as a moral weakness, Aristotle explains that it is a vital mistake of a tragic hero that brings the downfall from prominence to sorrow. Othello committed a mistake in believing in Lago’s lies. Lago convinced him that Desdemona, his wife, was unfaithful and he believed. Instead of taking time to investigate whether Lago was telling the truth he hastily and foolishly jumped into conclusions. He allowed Lago’s lies to get into his ears and due to his illogical and naïve behaviors, he ended up accusing his wife for being unfaithful. In the play Lago discovers that Othello has a weakness. He says that Othello has a free and open nature (EMC Corporation, 2005). That he thinks people are honest. Lago also says that the Moor can be led by his nose. Lago uses these weaknesses to bring down Othello. Because of his hamartia, Othello is brought down from a high status to ruin, fitting the description of Aristotle of a tragic hero.

Othello’s downfall

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must experience destruction by falling from the high status position into an unhappiness situation. The powerful protagonist in the play, is destined for massive suffering, sullen fall, and eventual defeat due to his own flaws. When Lago managed to convince Othello that his wife was cheating with Cassio, despite his high status, he was unable to manage the jealous emotions and ended up killing Desdemona. After the killing, Emilia tells Othello the truth that proved that the wife was not unfaithful. Othello was crushed and even began crying. He attempts to kill himself but with no success at first. However, when he was arrested, he gave a speech and managed to kill himself. From a high status position, Othello experienced a massive downfall where he ends up a murderer and dead. This qualifies, the play as a tragedy as the tragic hero ends up death.


The play leaves the audience with the feelings of being uplifted and justified. The fear and pity aroused by the fate of the protagonist hero, Othello results in catharsis state. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero ends up causing some changes in the emotions of the audience leading to a justification feeling. Aristotle said that a play must produce the pleasure of tragic which is fear and pity expunged in a fitting ending. The play moves the audience by making them to feel pity for Desdemona, Cassio, Lago, and eventually for Othello (Ananth, 2014). The fear of Othello and his wife’s fate is aroused in the audience confirmed in the murder of the wife. The audience also feel pity for Othello when he realized he stabbed innocent Desdemona. For the play the audience would come out as they have learned something important, the purpose of a tragedy. The emotionally charged plot qualifies Othello as an Aristotle’s tragedy.


The last element of a tragedy according to Aristotle is anagnorisis. This is a revelation of a previously an unknown fact to the protagonist hero (MacFarlane, 2000). Towards the end of the play, the element of anagnorisis is brought up. Othello realizes that Lago had lied to him leading to the murder of his wife. The tragic hero also realizes towards the end of the play that he killed his wife with no reason. The fact that the audience knows that Desdemona is innocent, arouses pity making the revelation exceptionally emotional (Kennedy et al. 2010, eds). The presence of this element in the play qualifies Othello as a tragedy.

Aristotelian tragedy

It correct to label Othello a “tragic hero” and to classify the play as an Aristotelian tragedy as has the five features that Aristotle explains as elements of a tragedy. The play demonstrates the fall of a protagonist hero who has power and is treated by respect and dignity in Venice. Othello fits the explanation of a tragic hero as he is powerful and noble considering he is a foreigner who is promoted to be an army General, an imitation of life. The audience witnesses Lago manipulating Othello, a dramatic form on the play qualifying it as tragedy. Throughout the play, fear and pity are aroused in the audience, another feature of a tragedy as explained by Aristotle. These features qualify the play as an Aristotle’s tragedy (Dewar-Watson, 2004). The fact that Othello was powerful, his flaws lead to his downfall, he experienced unimaginable defeat, qualifies him as a Tragic hero. In addition, the presence of catharsis and anagnorisis in the play qualifies it as an Aristotelian tragedy


It is clear that Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice qualifies as an Aristotelian tragedy. The presence of Power, hamartia, downfall, catharsis, and anargorisis in tragedy features in the play confirms that it is right to label Othello a tragic hero and classify the play as an Aristotelian tragedy. Othello fits the features of Aristotelian tragic hero as he begins as a powerful army general who is respected. Then his own flaws leads to his downfall. On the other hand, the play fits the description of an Aristotelian tragedy as it arouses fear and pity in drama form which imitates real life. The revelation at the end of the play tragic ending of the play also proves that it is correct to classify it as an Aristotelian tragedy.


Ananth, M. (2014). A Cognitive Interpretation of Aristotle’s Concepts of Catharsis and Tragic Pleasure. International Journal of Art and Art History, 2 (2), pp.1-33

Aristotle. (2010). Poetics. In Kennedy, X., Gioia, D., Kennedy, X. & Gioia, D. (Eds.), Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing (p. 856). New York: Longman.

Dewar-Watson, S. (2004). Shakespeare and Aristotle. Literature Compass, 1 (1), 1-9.

EMC Corporation, (2005). Othello: The Moor of Venice. EMC Corporation, pp. 1-301.

Galgut, E. (2009). Tragic Katharsis and Reparation: A Perspective on Aristotle’s Poetics. South African Journal of Philosophy, 28 (1), 13-24, 12.

MacFarlane, J. (2000). Aristotle’s Definition of “Anagnorisis”. The American Journal of Philology, 121, 367-383.