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Domestic tragedy

Watch Dr Anjna Chouhan examine Othello as unique among Shakespeare’s tragedies because it focuses on domestic settings and consequences.
ANJNA CHOUHAN: Let’s begin by defining what we mean by tragedy. A tragic story, invariably, is centred on an individual. His tragic journey is from glory to despair, triumph to suffering, and life to death. Let’s hear what Director Iqbal Khan thinks about tragic journeys.
IQBAL KHAN: The tragic element in these journeys is that there is unavoidable downfall for each one of these people. And the avoidable thing, the destruction of the beautiful is, I think, the impulse that gives us the tragic sentiment.
ANJNA CHOUHAN: For Iqbal, tragedy is about avoidable downfalls, and the destruction of the beautiful, and needlessly destroying that beauty brings about the tragedy. But how else might we define tragedy? Well, in the early 20th century, A.C. Bradley defined tragedy as “a story of exceptional calamity leading to the death of a man in high estate.” Exceptional, out of the ordinary, calamity for nobility, in other words. Bradley is referring to classical tragic protagonists who derive from noble stock, kings, queens, and aristocrats. This is important because the fates of these protagonists need to be tied to something larger than just themselves– kingdoms, cities, armies, and state matters are all at stake.
Think back to ancient Greek tragedies, and these noble protagonists are possessed of what we might call a tragic flaw, usually in the form of excessive pride. This angers and insults the gods and leads to the punishment and downfall of the tragic figure. Now this fall from pride to humiliation is known as hubris, a Greek word. Aristotle, back in 300 BCE, characterised tragedy as suffering that arouses pity and fear in order to achieve a catharsis of these emotions. And these are words that we still use today to think about tragedy– pity and fear, catharsis or purging, a kind of cleansing of the soul.
All the way back to Aristotle, tragedy has been something that explores suffering, whether that’s a soldier suffering because he’s been stabbed in battle, or woman suffering because she believes that her hands are stained by the blood of a king she helped to murder. Suffering both inside and out is something that helps audiences to care. Because if we don’t care about the characters, we cannot feel pity for them. Nor can we fear for their fates. And ultimately, we cannot achieve any kind of catharsis. So this was something fundamental to Shakespeare’s audiences. In 1595, the poet, Sir Philip Sydney, argued that tragedy “openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue.”
So tragedy, Sydney argues, should be revealing. It should strip away all the decadence and superficiality, plum down to the depths of what makes us truly human. But Sydney also said that tragedy “teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon what weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.” In other words, tragedy is not simply a lesson for the characters. It’s actually a cautionary and instructive tale for the audiences, as well. So let’s transfer this logic to Othello, or the tragedy of the Moor of Venice. The play is indeed explorative and cautionary as per Sydney’s definition. It arouses pity and fear, leading to a catharsis at the play’s climax. And it ends with the deaths of the protagonists.
IQBAL KHAN: Centrally it’s Othello’s trajectory that is the tragic trajectory. I think Desdemona is also caught up in that. And I think Emilia, in some sense, is also caught up in that. They will have their tragic trajectories. I think the dominant one though is definitely Othello’s.
ANJNA CHOUHAN: Othello starts off as the general of the Venetian army, noble and respected. He endures deceit, psychological torture, and ends up destroying the person he loves the most. Although he has assistance from Iago in his tragic fall, his decisions are ultimately his own. And it is, therefore, Othello who is punished. Not withstanding this, Othello’s personal tragedy has no real term impact on the fate of Venice or indeed Cyprus. And this marks out this particular tragic tale as unique in Shakespeare’s career. Because, although its setting is war and imperial occupation, it is largely a domestic tragedy, unlike Hamlet, for example, or even Macbeth.
If we include people outside of Othello and Desdemona, Iago and Emelia, for instance, Roderigo and Brabantio, the play becomes a private tragedy about disappointment and disillusionment. Everyone loves someone or something that turns out to be less than perfect. Most state civilizations or kingdoms are at stake because the Turks have already been defeated. In other words, Othello takes the audience from a public into a deeply and heartbreakingly private world. And it’s in that private sphere that we find out those weak foundations that Sydney believed were fundamental to any tragedy. This is, properly speaking, a domestic tragedy. And to quote Bradley once again, “it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most painfully exciting and most terrible of all his tragic plays.” Do you agree with Bradley?
Would you say, like Iqbal, that the play is exciting and unbearable because the tragedy is avoidable? Or would you side with Sydney and argue that a tragic tale is effective when it reveals the inevitable ugly weaknesses of human nature?
In this video Anjna looks at Othello as unique among Shakespeare’s tragedies because it focuses on domestic settings and consequences rather than men of ‘high estate’ with far reaching consequences.
As you watch consider:
  • What attributes and behaviours are expected from a tragic protagonist.
  • How Othello contrasts with Shakespeare’s other tragedies but also what links them.
Having watched the video, share your thoughts on the following questions in the Comments:
  • Why do you think Shakespeare chose to write a play with few far reaching consequences and deal more with domestic and intimate suffering?
  • How would you define tragedy and do you agree that the ‘private’ and ‘domestic’ nature of Othello’s tragedy makes it more powerful?
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Othello: In Performance

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