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Essay: Othello

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  • Published: 28 October 2015*
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Othello is certainly an overlay of the features that define tragedy as explained by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche and Eagleton. Hence, to say that the play is Hegelian does not necessarily mean it is not Aristotelian. While Aristotle focused on tragedy Hegel focused on the tragic. Both features of tragedy and the tragic are to a great extent available in the Shakespearean tragedy of Othello. Hegel’s theory on the tragic helps us to a great extent analyze the tragic conflict in this play. He focuses on the tragic vis-??-vis tragedy. And for me, Hegel is the best whom can we depend upon analyzing Shakespeare’s Othello. Not only that but also he uses other supportive techniques of increasing the tragic conflict. Hegel, neither judges nor indicates that the Greek tragedy is better than the Shakespearean , or the Shakespearean is better than the Greek as Professor Carl Friedrich states that it is not Greek tragedy, ultimately, but the Shakespearean dramatic world which Hegel exalts as ‘the very pinnacle of aesthetic achievement.’
To Hegel suffering does not mean tragedy. The cause of suffering is more important than suffering itself. In this way Hegel gives stress not on the suffering of a person but on the cause of suffering. He relates it to “a special kind of action which born out of the conflict of the spirit”. In Hegel’s view the suffering of a tragic hero is due to the conflict of the spirit. The reason why the tragic conflict thus appeals to the spirit is that it is itself a conflict of the spirit. It is a conflict, that is to say, between powers that rule the world of man’s will and action – his “ethical substance”. Hegel says that discordant of two forces always produces a tragic conflict. It is not essential that conflict always be between good and evil but it can be between good and good. One tries to prove the rejection of other and the result is collision. “The essentially tragic fact is the self – division and intestinal warfare of the ethical substance, not so much the war of good with evil as the war of good with good.”
Hegel describes tragedy ‘not merely a story of suffering but that of inexorability of law of fate of necessity’. The tragic hero involves in every action without knowing it good or bad or differentiating between them. Therefore, he is followed by the wrong action, makes a sacrifice of his entire life and ultimately reaches to his room.
All the main characters of Shakespearean tragedies meet their end by following the same theory. Hegel gives the idea of ‘reconciliation’. It means the realization of follies or mistakes done by the character on each and every step. Although he wants to improve it, he is too late to escape from the consequences. Ultimately, he prepares himself both physically and mentally to accept his defeat and destruction.
Thus, according to Hegelian theory, the incompatibility between two forces _ good and evil or good and good, produces a tragic conflict. Othello may be interpreted on the basis of this theory. In the play we find that both ‘Othello’ and ‘Desdemona’ are good characters. But Iago’s personal jealousy involves them in the evil game. He feels jealous for Othello and Cassio professionally and suspects his wife Emilia has illegal relationship with them.
The combination of this professional and sexual jealousy leads Iago to ruin the life of the poor characters. He provokes Othello against his wife Desdemona and makes him to suspect on her chastity. He convinces him that Cassio and Desdemona have an affair: ‘O beware, my lord, of jealous!/ It is green eyes monster; which doth mock./The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss/ Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger?/ Provoked by him without trying to find out the reason Othello involved in every wrong action and loses the balance of his mind and emotion. Othello, who has a deep faith in sexual purity, becomes excited to know about his wife’s unfaithfulness and violation of her chastity. On the other hand, Iago continuously persuades his rage: “Lie with her? Lie on her? We say lie on her when they / belie her. Lie with her? Zounds, that’s fulsome!? It is not words that shake me thus! Pish! /Noses, ears and lips/ it’s possible? – confess?/ Handkerchief/ O devil!”
Completely overwhelmed by his passion and ruled by the evil powers of Iago he kills his wife in suspicion. Hence, he denies both moral and legal law guided but the evil force and neglects the good force in Desdemona. But when he comes to know about the truth and realizes his folly. It is too late to do anything. He has to pay the life of his wife as a price of his wrong action and violation of law. Ultimately, he stabs himself repenting on his blender folly. In this way, law negates Othello as a result of its negation by him.
The indispensible element of both tragedy and comedy is collision. Collision occurs when ‘one individual’s aim encounters hindrances from other individuals’so that in this confrontation mutual conflicts and their complication result.’ Both the ends and the individuals identified with those ends come to a resolution through either ‘inevitable disaster or peaceful union.’ The resolution of the tragic conflict in Othello, however, is followed by the negation of the hero and affirmation of the moral order in the universe. As soon as Othello is awakened that he is guilty, his life turns out to be a sort of self-destruction. As per the Hegelian canon, Othello’s death shows the inexorability of Law.
Thus, the collision in Othello is not overtly the divine laws governing the family versus the laws of the State (as it for example in Sophocles’ Antigone). What constitute the main collisions are Iago’s hatred for Othello, and then the jealous fury of deceived Othello against innocent Desdemona. According to Hegel, Shakespeare gives some of the finest examples of ‘characters who come to ruin simply because of this decisive adherence to themselves and their aims.’
Aside from subjectivity, as Hegel states, contingencies also play a greater role in modern drama. Thus, even if, in Othello, we see credulity and obstinacy approaching what Hegel describes as a stoic consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Othello might nonetheless have lived happily with Desdemona. It is the contingency of Iago coming into his life and hating him so much that causes the problem. Iago’s presence has nothing to do with will of the gods.
Given the comprehensiveness and universality of the characters of the play’s dramatic action, we might say, according to Hegel, that Othello as well as other Shakespearean characters like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and other tragic characters as well have bad luck in circumstances and in some cases character traits. But it is not bad luck what makes tragedy. For Elizabethan consciousness, what happened to Othello concerns one or all of the following: the Wheel of Fortune, Fate, or the will of Providence. References to Fortune and to the position of the stars or the Divine occur throughout the play and characters after plead with or rail against these forces. It is the ability, as Hegel says of ‘Absolute Spirit,’ to sacrifice oneself into free contingent happening. It is the reuniting of the subject with nature. Iago, as Edmund in King Lear, was not capable of such sacrifice. Iago’s inability is present in his own credulity: His hatred of Othello stems from the fact that someone told Iago that Othello had slept with Iago’s wife. Thus despite being able to not be who he appears to be, Iago is caught up in the dramatic action. For someone to negate the negation, he or she has to have a clear understanding of his or her dramatic identity, and to be able to step in and out of it at will, as necessity dictates.
A way to organize one’s dramatic identity the wrong way is to see it as a function of magic. Othello gets himself really twisted up about Desdemona when he brings up the meaning of the handkerchief he gave to her and which he believes she has given away to Cassio.

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