Othello and Antigone: Who is the real tragic hero?

Othello and Antigone: Who is the real tragic hero?

The concept of the tragic hero has been studied for centuries. Its intrigue has continued from early myth into modern literature. Two immensely popular writers, Sophocles and Shakespeare, have often explored this concept through their literature. Antigone by Sophocles and Othello by William Shakespeare, both offer examples of the tragic hero for reader consideration.

The title characters both meet Aristotle’s criteria for tragic hero status to some degree. In his Poetics, Aristotle set the premiere set of standards that have governed tragedy for hundreds of years. Many authors have adhered tightly to these standards, while others have allowed themselves some room for digression.

According to Aristotle the tragic hero must be a person of high status and evident greatness. A regular citizen may not be a hero, but rather a king, prince, knight, etc. He must embody innate virtues and nobility. He must be seemingly beyond reproach, a figure that many look up to, and one that may be held up as an example.

This tragic hero, while great, is not perfect because he is still a mortal who can be identifiable with the audience. The tragic hero ultimately experiences a downfall which results of his own free will and choice, not a blind act of fate. This downfall is typically caused by an error in judgment or a flaw of character, which is called hamartia.

This flaw may involve hubris which is excessive pride and arrogance. Ambition and greed are other examples of tragic flaws often seen in literature. These flaws manifest through one small suggestion and grow to consume the hero. The flaw is the thing that causes a great fall of the tragic hero. Through actions associated with this flaw, the hero’s position is irrevocably reversed.

Such heroes in literature are Oedipus, Macbeth and Faust. Oedipus is the title character of a play by Sophocles. According to prophecy, he is to kill his father and marry his mother. Though he makes attempts to thwart the prophecy, this king ultimately ends up through his own anger, killing his father, and then unknowingly marrying his mother.

Macbeth’s vaulting ambition spurs him to attempt to rush his prophecy that he will become king, and Dr. Faustus ultimately sells his soul to the devil for earthly gain. Aristotle notes that this flaw is not a total loss; the tragic hero usually gains some degree of self-awareness or insight as a result of his experiences.

Typically, the punishment the hero receives is, according to Aristotle, harsher than the crime would typically merit. Most often, the punishment for the hero is death. Oedipus, once he discovers his sin, blinds himself and wanders the wilderness until his death. Macbeth is ultimately murdered by a fellow thane, and Dr. Faustus must comply with his pact with the devil.

Similarly, both Othello and Antigone are members of a high social class. Othello has just been appointed a general in the Venetian army while Antigone is the daughter of the former king and niece to the current king. Both characters are virtuous and noble. Othello, though a Moor, has gained the respect and confidence of the Venetian government. Antigone is a younger woman completely dedicated to her brother and to the teachings of her gods.

Othello rules the army at Cyprus with great nobility and strength of character, so when it is evident that his underling and friend Cassio has become drunk and violent, he notes “Cassio, I love thee, But nevermore be officer of mine (Shakespeare 2.3.264-265). Even though he is close friends with Cassio and has recently appointed him to a higher position, he feels he must not let that hinder his necessary actions.

Similarly, Antigone feels very strongly that her religious beliefs require her to bury her brother, an action which Creon has forbidden under penalty of death. Antigone announces to her fearful sister, “I’ll bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory” (Sophocles 85-86).

Both Othello and Antigone are virtuous and high borne characters in the play whose decisions reflect their noble personality characteristics even when it means a loss for themselves. However, Othello meets the criterion of tragic hero more precisely than does Antigone. His flaw is believing the words of his advisor Iago and not trusting his own wife, Desdemona.

Othello allowed Iago to construct a scenario made of, largely, circumstantial evidence to easily manipulate him. Iago’s plan for Othello was complex, but all spawned from hate. He says “Though I do hate him as I do hell, Yet for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love- Which is indeed just a sign” (Shakespeare 1.1.171-174).

Ultimately, he is convinced to kill his innocent wife, thinking she has committed adultery based on the lies of Iago, a circumstantial conversation and a missing handkerchief that winds up with a courtesan. Antigone seems to lack this tragic flaw. She is resolved to bury her brother according to the teaching of her gods which dictate that an unburied body will not find rest in the afterlife.

She is resolute and strong in the face of oppression, even that of her sister. This noble action, while perhaps a sign of stubbornness, is not a flaw, but a type of martyrdom. She never wavers, even when facing impending doom as evidence by the following: “But if I had allowed my own mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse – that would have been nothing (Sophocles 520-522).

She is not afraid to die for what she believes in. In addition, Antigone is presented as having no flaws; she awaits her fate without attempting to lie or escape or allow her sister to join her in the suffering when she finally asks. While Antigone is martyr-like, Othello is present as more imperfect, allowing himself to be deceived and talked into killing his wife.

Both characters die. Antigone dies by hanging herself in her cave prison. Othello turns his sword upon himself once he realized that Iago had deceived him and that Desdemona was true. Neither deserves death. However, Antigone knew when she committed the burial that it was against the law.

She was aware that the king vowed to kill anyone who committed this crime and was familiar with the imminent power of kings. Othello kills himself out of grief announcing that a “malignant and turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state…” (Shakespeare 5.2.414-415). Had he remained alive, Iago’s lies would have given him some small excuse for his behavior.

Aristotle notes that the tragic heroes do gains some type of awareness or self-knowledge. This does not seem to be true of Antigone. She already knew that she was resolute and strong in her faith. She knew that she loved Haman but was willing to die for her beliefs. She has no real insight because she doesn’t really have a fatal flaw.

She never once vacillates from her original position or seeks to save herself. She even has the support of her fiancé, the blind prophet Tieresias, and the people. She had no other choice, according to her beliefs. On the other hand, Othello has a huge realization. Once Emilia admits the truth and is corroborated, he realizes his error.

Of course he realizes how false Iago had been and that several innocent individuals have died. More so, he realizes his own shortcomings. He asks Lodovico to remember him as “one that loved not wisely, but too well, Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all of his tribe;” (Shakespeare 5.2.404-408)

Othello realizes that he loved people and trusted them too much, that he was easily manipulated, that he had partially caused the deaths of innocent individuals, and most importantly, that Desdemona had always been true to him and him alone. He finds no other way to solve these injustices than to take his own life.

Of course he dies knowing that Iago will be punished. Aristotle pointed out that the audience of a true tragedy should feel a type of catharsis from the drama. This is true in both dramas. First, Othello reaches the realization that his wife was not cheating with Cassio. The audience feels better knowing that the truth was finally revealed.

In Antigone, Creon also realizes that his stubbornness was wrong. Again, the audience feels this cathartic, emotional release. In neither case do the audiences go away depressed, angry or seeing no hope for the future. They simply have had a learning and growing experience which is what Aristotle deemed a necessary component of staged tragedy.

While Antigone and Othello are both major tragic figures in literature, it is Othello that most closely represents the tragic ideals set forth by Aristotle in his Poetics. These ideas include being high born, a noble and virtuous individual worthy of emulation, having a tragic flaw that causes a downfall, enduring a huge loss as a result of this flaw, and ultimately achieving insight and understanding as a result of the ordeal.

As a more human figure that the audience can identify with, Othello has a defined tragic flaw of being too trusting and being too rash. He kills himself out of remorse and after learning that he had trusted the wrong person and slain his innocent wife. His fall from general to murderer to dead is truly indicative of Aristotle’s views of tragedy.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993

Sophocles. Antigone. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. Eds. Kennedy and Gioia. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005