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Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello treats the audience to considerable heroism, not only from the hero and heroine but also from unexpected characters.
Kenneth Muir, in the Introduction to William Shakespeare: Othello, explains how the consensus of the characters in the drama testify to the heroism of the general:
The testimony of all the main characters in the play is decisive. Brabantio loved him; Lodovico speaks of him as ‘the noble Moor’ ‘once so good’; Cassio, who has good cause to hate him, addresses him as ‘Dear General’ and speaks his epitaph: ‘he was great of heart’. The Duke declares that he is more fair than black. Montano is delighted to hear of Othello’s appointment as Governor. But the most significant testimony to Othello’s character comes from the one man who hates him. Iago confesses that the state ‘Cannot with safety cast him’ because ‘Another of his fathom they have none’. (29)
A character’s attitude toward the most fearful foe – death itself – is unquestionably a criterion for judging a heroic type from a non-heroic type. Helen Gardner in “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune” considers Iago’s wife Emilia to be a true hero of the play because of her fearless outlook on death itself:
Emilia’s silence while her mistress lived is fully explicable in terms of her character. She shares with her husband the generalizing trick and is well used to domestic scenes. The jealous, she knows,
are not ever jealous for the cause
But jealous for they are jealous.
If it was not the handkerchief it would be something else. Why disobey her husband and risk his fury? It would not do any good. This is what men are like. But Desdemona dead sweeps away all such generalities and all caution. At this sight, Emilia though ‘the world is a huge thing’ finds that there is a thing she will not do for it. By her heroic disregard for death she gives the only ‘proof’ there can be of Desdemona’s innocence: the testimony of faith. (145)
At the outset of the play Iago persuades the rejected suitor of Desdemona, Roderigo, to accompany him to the home of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, in the middle of the night. Once there the two awaken the senator with loud shouts about his daughter’s elopement with Othello.
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To prison, till fit time
Of law and course of direct session
Call thee to answer. (1.2)
The proceedings which take place before the Duke of Venice show heroism on the part of Desdemona, who stands up to her father before the body of senators with whom he has worked for years, but in a respectful manner: “My noble father, / I do perceive here a divided duty.” She elects to remain with the Moor. A.C. Bradley, in his book of literary criticism, Shakespearean Tragedy, defines the main woman character, Desdemona, as a hero in the play from the very outset:
There is perhaps a certain excuse for our failure to rise to Shakespeare’s meaning, and to realize how extraordinary and splendid a thing it was in a gentle Venetian girl to love Othello, and to assail fortune with such a ‘downright violence and storm’ as is expected only in a hero. It is that when first we hear of her marriage we have not yet seen the Desdemona of the later Acts; and therefore we do not perceive how astonishing this love and boldness must have been in a maiden so quiet and submissive. (191)
The general himself, in narrating how he wins the hand of Desdemona, gives testimony to his own valor during many battles. He concludes: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them.”
Brabantio’s rage, among other reasons, necessitate that Desdemona live with Iago and Emilia during the Moor’s campaign in Cyprus against the Turks. On the island, while awaiting the arrival of Othello’s ship, Desdemona shows herself an intelligent debater. She grows tired of Iago’s derogatory comments directed at his wife, and she quite matter-of-factly (and heroically) states her mind: “O, fie upon thee, slanderer!” She continues to critique the ancient’s answers to her questions: “These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i' the alehouse” and “O heavy ignorance! thou praisest the worst best.” She is not fearful or reticent in the least, but rather confronts a man as her equal and not her superior.
Once that her husband has safely arrived on the island and disembarked, she greets him publicly as if she were herself a diplomat, and later responds before the crowd to his loving address to herself:
The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase,
Even as our days do grow! (2.1)
Later, when Cassio appeals to her after Iago has entangled him in an imbroglio with Roderigo and Governor Montano, which leads to his dismissal by the general, she becomes mediator between the general and the dismissed lieutenant: “Be thou assured, good Cassio, I will do / All my abilities in thy behalf.”
Emilia makes her appearance in Act 2, defending herself verbally against an onslaught of criticism by Iago: “her tongue she oft bestows on me”; “chides with thinking”; “Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchen / Saints in your injuries, devils being offended.” Emilia seems not intelligent and witty enough to adequately defend herself, so Desdemona comes to her assistance. Unfortunately Emilia initially shows no heroism and through most of the play is manipulated by her husband. Iago, in planning his strategy following the dismissal of Cassio, says, “My wife must move for Cassio to her mistress; I’ll set her on”; and she shortly thereafter gives the lieutenant access to Desdemona: “I will bestow you where you shall have time / To speak your bosom freely.” She freely gives him the handkerchief which he has asked her to steal, knowing quite plainly that the loss would pain her mistress (“but she so loves the token”). But later Emilia does an about-face and finishes her life in very heroic fashion.
Desdemona shows considerable heroism when she continues her relationship with Othello after she becomes aware of the deterioration in his attitude:
Something, sure, of state,
Either from Venice, or some unhatch'd practise
Made demonstrable here in Cyprus to him,
Hath puddled his clear spirit: and in such cases
Men's natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. (3.3)
Lodovico arrives from Venice to recall the general and to leave Cassio in charge of Cyprus, Desdemona escorts the diplomat to Othello, with whom she valiantly and generously still pleads her case on behalf of the fallen Cassio: “Cousin, there's fall'n between him and my lord / An unkind breach: but you shall make all well.”
She retains her dignified image even as Othello calls her “Devil!” and strikes her in the presence of Lodovico; she quietly responds, “I have not deserved this,” and weeps. The audience’s reaction is Lodovico’s: “My lord, this would not be believed in Venice, / Though I should swear I saw't: 'tis very much: / Make her amends; she weeps.” When the general questions Emilia, the latter begins to show the stirrings of heroism in her life as she adamantly supports the consistent virtue of Desdemona:
I durst, my lord, to wager she is honest,
Lay down my soul at stake: if you think other,
Remove your thought; it doth abuse your bosom.
If any wretch have put this in your head,
Let heaven requite it with the serpent's curse!
For, if she be not honest, chaste, and true,
There's no man happy; the purest of their wives
Is foul as slander. (4.2)
Regardless of Emilia’s excellent testimony, Othello calls his wife a “strumpet,” which elicits a pious, levelheaded, unemotional response:
No, as I am a Christian:
If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none. (4.2)
In Act 5, Cassio’s screams after being wounded by Roderigo spur the general to execute his part of the bargain with his ancient, namely the execution of Desdemona: “The voice of Cassio: Iago keeps his word.” In Scene 2, Othello awakens his wife, whose first concern is for her husband, whose emotions have disfigured his appearance:
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point on me. (5.2)
To be so generously concerned about someone else when one is in such dire straits is heroic indeed. When the Moor confesses his intention to kill her, she puts spiritual matters in the forefront before even her very life: “Then Lord have mercy on me!” – another example of unselfishness to the heroic degree. Othello suffocates his wife. In executing this action, the general is doing, as he sees it, an heroic deed to the world. He thinks he is removing a “strumpet” from society and thus doing a good service. His motivation is not self-serving. Shortly, Emilia comes upon the scene, and Desdemona revives just enough to tell her friend that she dies a guiltless death, and to say some words of kindness for Othello, “Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!” The general confesses to Emilia why he did it – because of Iago’s testimony to Desdemona’s falseness. Emilia, formerly of imperfect morality, at this point becomes a beacon of light and truth and heroism; she contradicts Iago: “Thou art rash as fire, to say / That she was false: O, she was heavenly true!” and accuses him of lying:
You told a lie, an odious, damned lie;
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie.
She false with Cassio! (5.2)
Then she accuses him of causing murder: “And your reports have set the murder on.” At one point the irate Iago draws his dagger and threatens his wife, but Gratiano intervenes with, “Fie! Your sword upon a woman?” Despite the threat of death, she continues. Emilia’s stunning interrogation and conviction of her own husband as the evil mastermind behind the crime results in Iago’s killing her. She dies an unsung heroine of the play, giving her life for what she believes in, namely the innocence of her lady and the guilt of her husband. The abrupt change in her character toward the end of the play is a pleasant surprise.
Despondent Othello, grief-stricken by remorse for the tragic mistake he has made, acts heroically, following the example of Emilia. He stabs himself and dies on the bed next to the one he has wronged.
A character’s attitude toward life is certainly a criterion for heroism. Is Othello heroic in what he does here? H. S. Wilson in his book of literary criticism, On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy, discusses the general’s heroic attitude in the final scene of the play:
In the final scene of Othello, the hero, with that utter lack of self-consciousness of self-criticism which is the height of human vanity, strikes a heroic attitude, makes an eloquent plea for himself, at the height of his eloquence stabs himself – and the innocent spectator feels a lump in his throat or dissolves in tears; but Shakespeare, even while he renders Othello eloquent and moving, contemplates with quiet irony the spectacle of human self-deception and secretly smiles. (58)
A. C. Bradley describes the development of the Shakespearean super-hero in Othello:
And with this change goes another, an enlargement in the stature of the hero. There is in most of the later heroes something colossal, something which reminds us of Michelangelo’s figures. They are not merely exceptional men, they are huge men; as it were, survivors of the heroic age living in a later and smaller world. [. . .] Othello is the first of these men, a being essentially large and grand, towering above his fellows, holding a volume of force which in repose ensures pre-eminence without an effort, and in commotion reminds us rather of the fury of the elements than of the tumult of common human passion. (168)
Bradley, A. C.. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Gardner, Helen. “Othello: A Tragedy of Beauty and Fortune.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from “The Noble Moor.” British Academy Lectures, no. 9, 1955.
Muir, Kenneth. Introduction. William Shakespeare: Othello. New York: Penguin Books, 1968.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Wilson, H. S. On the Design of Shakespearean Tragedy. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1957.