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?