Othello: Venetian Hero?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term hero is another way of saying submarine sandwich, but more importantly for this blog post, a hero is “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities… the chief male character in a book, play or movie, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize.” While Othello may not end in the happiest of ways, upon evaluating his life’s work (as Othello does himself in act 5.2), it can be said that Othello was a virtuous man of strong moral conviction, and while it led to his demise, many who were surrounded by Othello over the course of the play admired him.


Othello states that he had “done the state some service (5.2 line 338),” as we must assume due to his position as a general of the Venetian army from the onset of the play. From Iago’s complaints at the beginning of the play, we can figure that politics are behind all choices regarding the military. Despite the fact that “three great ones in personal suit” tried to convince Othello to pick Iago to become the next first lieutenant, Othello chooses otherwise, much to Iago’s dismay: “But [Othello]—As loving his own pride and purposes—evades [my advocates] with a bombast circumstance, horrible stuffed with epithets of war, and in conclusion non-suits my mediators (1.1 line 7).” All of this, including the fact that the person who beats Iago out for the job has “never set a squadron in the field, nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster [meaning: an old woman without children who has never married].” Looking past the anger of Iago’s words, readers can observe that he still makes valid points that attest to the fact that decisions of this nature have more to do with personal connections rather than the level of an individual’s experience. It is then all the more admirable that Othello manages to reach such a high post in the Venetian military in the face of all of the racism he deals with. Seeing how blatantly disrespectful the Venetian people are towards him long after he has achieved this high post, one can only imagine the racism he dealt with before his many promotions. So let’s check a few things from our hero qualifications list: Othello is a man who was almost certainly admired or idealized for his courage and/or outstanding achievements in war, and his noble qualities may be what got him to the position of general in the first place.

But why should we, the readers, be sympathizing with him? Because, similar to another one of our favorite heroes, he unknowingly commits crime and fulfills the low predictions people hold for his existence. It was said outright to Oedipus in Oedipus the King that he would kill his father and marry his mother, compared to the discreet jabs taken by characters at Othello throughout the play: “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe if he can carry’t thus?(1.1, line 66)” And how could we forget about Brabantio’s refusal to believe that Othello managed to court his daughter Desdemona in a sober state of mind? He would rather attribute Othello’s marriage to Desdemona to her being bound “in chains of magic (1.2, line 63).” Getting back to the point, though, after Othello does lose the composure that we come to know him by, he kills Desdemona after being falsely led to believe that she has cheated on him. Not too long after killing her on their marriage bed, Othello discovers that Iago lied to him the entire time. No longer justified by revenge for Desdemona’s infidelity, Othello finds himself guilty of murder. And so Oedipus and Othello’s paths converge, in their harsh self-imposed punishments: Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, and Othello stabs himself fatally. Many in our preceptorial class have sympathized with Oedipus, due to the fact that his crimes were committed unknowingly. It is not so cut and dry in Othello, because he still did kill a woman, regardless of whether or not Desdemona cheated on him. A definition for hero that we pondered with in class was that a hero was somebody capable of showing unique traits or powers. Having the poise to kill oneself on one’s own accord and choice (unlike Oedipus who essentially had no choice) is a trait that not many possess.

Going back to our Oxford definition (the non food related one)… it states that readers are expected to sympathize with the hero in question, but we certainly don’t have to. Regardless, Othello’s legend lives on for what is believed to be over 400 years later. The fact that we as readers can still evaluate and discuss Othello’s life all of these years later is proof enough that he belongs in the same discussion as Oedipus, Prometheus and countless other literary heroes.

What are your thoughts? Is Othello a hero in your mind?


5 thoughts on “Othello: Venetian Hero?”

  1. I’m so glad that you asked. Here are my quick thoughts on whether or not we can consider Othello a hero. Based on your Oxford definition, I feel as though Othello, despite his “outstanding achievements or noble qualities” cannot be considered a hero. This is due to some very specific word choice; sympathy. The term sympathize implies that one is too accept Othello’s actions as reasonable or “something any of us would have done” in that situation. Is that to say that we as a society are to sympathize with murderers, and not just any murderers, but those of innocent women? I whole-heartedly disagree. Oedipus on the other hand I’m a bit more lenient towards, yes he did commit murder, but under different circumstances. Oedipus actions were “spur of the moment”, they were not premeditated, as Othello’s were and I feel as though overall one can more easily identify with Oedipus’ situation. (It maybe even safe to say that we can sympathize with his character.) As for the definition of hero based on our discussion in class, I completely agree. Both Oedipus and Othello do check off on the hero qualification list, simply because although they both achieve on grand scale, the both fail and suffer on a scale equally as grand. Also, I just thought it was interesting how you pointed out Othello’s decision to promote Cassio over Iago. Before Othello had been tainted by the “green eyed monster” that was jealousy, he refused to pick Iago despite “the fact that “three great ones in personal suit” tried to convince Othello to pick Iago to become the next first lieutenant” Maybe Othello, in a more “sober” state of mind saw something fishy about Iago that he was ‘blind’ to later on. I guess that’s another conversation for another time but definitely, Othello does deserve to be considered amongst the Legends regardless of under what circumstance we measure his heroism.

  2. I think the question of calling Othello a hero could go either way. There is the fact of all his accomplishments and courage blah blah, and I’ll even add in that he was able to overcome the racism of the time and get to where he was. At the same time, I agree with what Baguidy is saying about him not being a hero. He killed someone he loved because of a rumour he heard. Is that heroic? no. Maybe slightly romanic if one is into that. But that is weird. Don’t be like that. Anyway, I personally cannot call someone a hero if they kill someone they love out of rumour and jealousy. I guess in the end Othello and Desdemona will be together forever. Sort of. Again only if you’re into that. I’m not into that. Othello is dead. Desdemona is dead. Hell everyone is pretty much dead. Well not really. But kinda

  3. In my opinion, Othello as the story begins is a hero. He is a general in the Venetian army and he is respected by others despite the fact that he is a “Moor.” However I would consider his heroism to slowly begin to deteriorate as his jealousy increases towards the lies about Desdemona. It is here where he begins to plan to kill her. Killing an innocent women will automatically make any hero into a villain. Another reason why he deserves to be stripped of his heroism is the fact that he took his own life in a cowardly fashion. To me anyone who can’t do the time, shouldn’t to the crime. Killing himself was almost like taking the easy way out.

  4. I agree with Danny in that Othello took the easy way out in killing himself and was sort of cowardly. While it does prove that he loves Desdemona when he takes his own life, he should have given her the chance to explain herself before immediately deciding to kill her. However, the idea that planning to kill her makes him a villain seems a little exaggerated. No, it is not okay to kill someone just for cheating on you, but I think a lot of people would feel the same way Othello did in such circumstances.

  5. I agree with Danny in that Othello begins as a hero. He is first presented as a nobleman who only has love for Desdemona. As Iago manipulates him and puts ideas into his head, Othello quickly becomes less heroic. His jealousy takes over and eventually Othello is a puppet to Iago. At the end of the play, Othello takes responsibility for his actions, which is the only thing remotely heroic that he accomplishes. I also agree that Othello took the easy way out in killing himself, as he should have had to pay retribution for his sins.

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