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FORM AND STRUCTURE
Othello is often considered Shakespeare's most perfectly constructed play. It is tightly organized, fast-paced, and exciting, and never distracts the audience with sub-plots or superfluous characters.
Shakespeare created his plays according to a classic structure based on exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or denoument. In a well-structured play, the elements are not independent of one another; they blend logically and inevitably.
Here are the classic structure elements as they apply to Othello.
Expository scenes introduce the characters and their relationships to one another. Much of Othello's first act is devoted to exposition of Iago's hatred of Othello, Othello and Desdemona's courtship and elopement, Brabantio's mistrust of Othello, and the impending war with the Turks. Exposition sets the scene.
As the characters make moves and countermoves, the plot is propelled forward and conflicts intensify. In Act II, Iago is responsible for most of the rising action. He plans to work revenge against Othello through Cassio. To this end, he gets Cassio drunk, for which Othello fires him. Iago then convinces Cassio to seek Desdemona's help in winning back Othello's respect. Everything, as controlled by Iago's actions, leads inevitably to the climax.
This is the point of greatest excitement and suspense in the play. In Shakespeare, the climax always occurs in Act III. The climax represents the point when the conflicts have gone as far as possible. Some readers refer to this point as a knotting up of the conflicts. How will the knots be untangled?
The climax of Othello comes in Act III, scene iii when Iago succeeds in convincing Othello that Desdemona is guilty of adultery. By the end of the scene, Othello has vowed to kill his wife. The tension is nearly unbearable. What will happen? How will it end?
In Act IV of Othello, we see what happens as a result of the knotting in the climax. Although there is a period in which we think-and hope-that Othello will learn the truth, the death of Desdemona is inevitable. Iago's hold on Othello is so strong that Othello can't be moved from his mission of murder.
CONCLUSION OR DENOUMENT
This is the unknotting of the plot threads that got tangled in the first four acts. After Desdemona's death, there is a great deal that has to be resolved: Emilia's discovery of Iago's treachery, her death, Othello's realization of his horrible deception, his suicide, Iago's punishment, and the restoration of order by Lodovico. Evil has been conquered and goodness regained, but the price was terribly high.
TRAGEDY AND TRAGIC FLAW
The principles of tragedy were set down in the 4th century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his seminal work on literature, The Poetics. For Aristotle, a tragedy is the story of a noble hero whose downfall is brought about by a specific defect in his character, a tragic flaw. The hero may face opposition from an outside force (such as Othello faces from Iago), but his ruin is really the result of his own mistakes. By the end of the play the tragic hero comes to some understanding of his error and accepts responsibility for his doom. The realization and acceptance of his fate brings him back to the state of spiritual nobility he had at the beginning of the play.
Shakespeare's heros are usually men of royalty: Lear and Macbeth are kings, Hamlet a prince. Othello, although of royal birth, is a general. Some readers have felt that his lower social position disqualifies him from being a true tragic hero. Others feel that Othello earns the title through his character traits: strength, courage, patience, gentleness, romanticism. He is admired by everyone in the play (even Iago admits that Othello is a good man). Othello is considered by many to be a more human hero than other Shakespearean tragic heroes. Some readers find it easier to identify with someone closer to the common man and empathize more readily with his problems.
Aristotle felt that identification with the tragic hero was essential. As we watch a great man ruined by his own flaw-ambition, greed, or pride, for example-we understand that he is human, as we are, and that we could suffer the same fate under similar circumstances. According to Aristotle, our responses should be pity and fear: pity for the man who has met such a horrible fate, and fear that the same could happen to us. Yet because these men recognize their own part in their ruin and because their better qualities eventually overcome their limitations, we feel uplifted and moved by their experience rather than defeated and depressed.
OTHELLO'S TRAGIC FLAW
What is it that causes Othello's downfall? Some have said that he's simply a jealous person whose jealousy of his wife gets out of hand, Others insist that jealousy is not part of his natural make-up, that the emotion takes over only when Iago pushes him to the brink of insanity.
Most of the evidence in the play tends to support the latter interpretation. Othello doesn't show himself to be jealous early in the play. Manipulated by Iago's skillful lies, Othello must confront emotions he can't handle. His jealousy literally drives him mad. His wisdom and judgment are replaced by anger and hate, and the power of these destructive emotions leads to Desdemona's death and Othello's suicide.