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What Effect Shakespeare Uses Aristotles Ideas English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1340 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Shakespeare’s “Othello” conforms to a number of Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy whilst disregarding others. Aristotle believed that in order to create a climax there must be a dramatic prediction providing a sense of impending doom. Tragedies frequently centre on the tragic hero who has a flaw that in due course leads to his downfall, this weakness being defined as hamartia. This tragic flaw is the result of the hubris, or in other words, extreme pride. Most importantly is the notion that the play leaves the audience to consider the arguments in the play, in effect putting them in the protagonist’s position; Aristotle called this catharsis as the audience should experience pity and fear in the process. His principle about the setting and timing of the drama is that it has to take place in 24 hours in one location with no subplots and no loose ends, known as the unities. Shakespeare employs Aristotle’s ideas but in an adapted way, although these ideas and fit the dramatic purpose well creating an engrossing play.

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Another dramatic prediction is used by Shakespeare in Act 1 Scene 3. The prediction involves Brabantio warning Othello of his daughter “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father and may thee.” This prediction again is ironic because later in the play Othello does believe Desdemona to be untrustworthy which shows how Shakespeare uses dramatic prediction to create the air of impending doom in early stages of the play. However, Othello’s response “My life upon her faith!” creates an impact dramatically due to the certainty of this statement. The frequency of dramatic predictions is emphasised because of the sheer length of the build up to the hamartia which allows Shakespeare to focus on other beliefs Aristotle had on tradegy, in this case hubris.

It is evident that Othello has a much idealized view of himself and this hubris ultimately leads to Othello’s downfall. Nevertheless, it is established early in the play in Act 1 Scene 3 “My parts, my title, my perfect soul”. By doing so Shakespeare sets the foundation for greater dramatic impact later in the play in Act 5 Scene 2 “Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” which is in stark contrast to the confidence shown early in the play. Othello’s attitude to jealousy could be considered hubristic as he claims in Act 3 Scene3 “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;/…Away at once with love or jealousy!” putting himself in an elevated position believing that he would be rational when confronted with jealousy. Giving Othello excessive pride Shakespeare can create a greater hamartia thus abiding by Aristotle’s views.

Furthermore, Aristotle’s approach to tragedy was the concept of the protagonist having a fatal flaw described as hamartia. Othello’s fatal flaw is jealousy and to a certain extent, naivety. His trusting nature would be considered a virtue, however, when he comes into contact with Iago, his virtue becomes open for exploitation. In Act 1 Scene 3 the foundations of this trust are clearly seen as Othello describes Iago as “A man… of honesty and trust” which shows early signs that link closely with the sense of impending doom. Othello’s naivety can also be seen in the early stages of the play in Act 1 Scene 3 “I will your serious and great business scant” believing naively that Desdemona will not distract him. Yet, this is in stark contrast to the end of the play which makes his fatal flaw far more believable as you can see the grinding down of his character in Act 5 Scene 2 “O, fool, fool, fool!” with the repetition serving to emphasise the turmoil he is in. This demonstrates how Shakespeare uses more than one of Aristotle ideas, combined again to help convey the air of impending doom, amplifying the hamartia thus giving the tragedy more dramatic impact.

The effects of Shakespeare’s use of Aristotle’s ideas are clearly evident creating a tragedy that leaves the audience to ponder in some depth the arguments of the play. The arguments presented fall into Aristotle’s theory on tragedy, catharsis, which Shakespeare induces in “Othello”. Pity would be experienced by the audience because once Emilia in Act 5 Scene 2 tells Othello what he has done “For thou hast killed the sweetest innocent/ That e’er did lift up eye.” And the destruction he has caused “Blow me about in the winds! Roast me in sulphur!” he has condemned himself to hell which shows that the effects of hamartia have taken their toll on him. This combined with Othello’s last speech “Speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well, of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in an extreme….” induces the pity because Othello has realised his flaw leaving the audience sadder and perhaps more wiser, something Aristotle would have approved of.

Fear is another aspect of Catharsis which is present in “Othello”. The fear stems from Othello’s ability to be manipulated and the destruction that results. In act 3 scene 3 “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;/…Away at once with love or jealousy!” the catharsis can be seen to be strongly linked with the hubris because Othello is so sure of himself, reinforced by the exclamation mark, which is in stark contrast with the destructive killing of Desdemona. Yet the downfall of his character provokes fear of how he was manipulated, leaving the audience to think that it could happen to them. Shakespeare exasperates this fear by showing Iago’s manipulation of Roderigo which can be seen as early as Act 1 Scene 1 and establishes Iago’s character providing a hint of what is to come.

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Yet Shakespeare disregards some aspects of Greek theory involving the setting and the timing by allowing the play to take place in different locations. It begins in Venice and then transfers to Cyprus, being carried out over several years. By doing this in “Othello” Shakespeare can build up to the climax of the play, thus creating greater depth to the story and characters. Having no sub plots allows the audience to focus on the main plot which is why Shakespeare has the majority of the dialogue between Othello and Iago.

However, some ideas Shakespeare abides by are carried out to ill effect, “Gratiano, keep the house/ And seize upon the fortunes of the Moor” This tying up of all loose ends bestows the impression that it has been forced, as if Shakespeare deliberately tried to use Aristotle’s ideas about tragedy. Nonetheless, the tying up of all loose ends doesn’t occur in the case of Iago who refuses to admit to his villainous acts “Demand me nothing…” which is a criticism Dr Johnson has of Shakespeare “writing without a moral purpose”. The refusal to pass judgement in conventional moral is something Aristotle wouldn’t have done, emphasising that the unities are distorted in “Othello”. Nevertheless, the monosyllables Iago uses diminish the rhythmic interest in the line “From this time forth I will never speak a word” demonstrating that he possibly knows what he has done was wicked.

Shakespeare uses Aristotle’s ideas as a format until it doesn’t prove as useful to his purpose or his intention for his characters and the plays outcome. Most notably the unities are not followed by Shakespeare because by doing so he can continually create dramatic tension to intensify the hamartia of the play. Likewise, the alteration of Aristotle’s view on the unities means that the hubris of Othello can be more established. This affects the audience’s feelings about the play making the catharsis have a greater impact.


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