This lesson examines whether or not the titular character from Shakespeare's play Othello fits the criteria of a tragic hero as set by Aristotle in his notorious book about dramatic theory, Poetics.
Before reading Othello, students should become familiar with the qualities of a tragic hero as outlined in the document provided above (hamartia, hubris, anagnorisis, peripeteia, catastrophe, catharsis). The blank version is provided for students to fill out. There are multiple ways to give students the definitions, ranging from direct instruction to a scavenger hunt. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles serves as a great model of this structure.
As Othello is being read, whether in class or independently, students should be given the Othello Tragic Hero Checklist. On this document, students will record evidence that supports or refutes how Othello fits Aristotle's qualities of a tragic hero. There are spaces for quotes and line numbers to help prepare for the ending essay assignment. Students can actively read and think about these qualities throughout the duration of the play. The possible responses to the criteria varies, but some common responses are:
Hamartia: Othello's blind trust of Iago or his fervent jealously regarding Desdemona could both be considered fatal flaws.
Anagnorisis (discovery): Typically this stage is when the tragic hero gains awareness of reality. Up until this point, he/she has been fed lies or there is some huge truth that has been hidden up until this point. Othello actually experiences two discoveries: when Iago plants the idea that Desdemona is unfaithful into his head (which is actually a lie), and in Act V when Othello realizes that Iago was lying all along. Students could possibly choose either event. The former fits well with the next stage (peripeteia) since it leads to misfortune, but since it is not actually the truth it could be disputed that it isn't a true discovery. The latter is undoubtedly when Othello discovers the truth, but it leads directly to the titular character's downfall.
Peripeteia (turning point): This stage is dependent on when anagnorisis takes place. If the student decides that the discovery is when Othello "discovers" that Desdemona is unfaithful, the turning point takes place shortly afterward when Othello's friendship with Cassio is destroyed and Desdemona's murder is plotted. If anagnorisis is decided to occur when Othello realizes that Iago was lying the whole time, the peripeteia is the very brief moment when Othello resolves to take his own life.
Catastrophe (downfall): The almost unanimous catastrophe of the play is when Othello takes his own life.
Is Othello a Tragic Hero?
After completing Othello, the checklist lends itself to the construction of an essay proving whether or not Othello is a true tragic hero. Through my experience, most students tend to conclude that he is a tragic hero, since he fits most of the criteria put forth by Aristotle. The grade of the assignment is dependent on how convincing the evidence is. However, there are some convincing arguments to support that he is not a tragic hero. For one, it could be argued that he does not experience peripeteia if his anagnorisis (discovery) is placed at the very end of the play, and the absence of this quality is enough to discredit him as a tragic hero entirely. Additionally, one of the most interpretive elements of a tragic hero's journey is the catharsis or emotional realization in the audience. Some may find this quality absent since the reader is aware of the truth throughout the whole play (dramatic irony).
Whether or not the student concludes that Othello is a tragic hero, examining these qualities while reading the play adds a new dimension to the story and promotes critical thinking.