As I’m diving deeper into the play, I find myself asking a seemingly simple question, but one that I’m not sure I can answer at the moment:
Who is the protagonist of Othello?
OK, so first things first: What is a protagonist? Is it the main character? And by that, do we mean the focal point of the audience? Is it the character for whom the audience has a rooting interest? Is it the character who is trying to achieve something (with the character working against him/her being the antagonist)?
Is Othello the protagonist? Is he the main character? He’s certainly the title character, but that’s not a great value here (think, The First Part of Henry the Fourth [Prince Hal] or Julius Caesar [Brutus]). Does he have the most speeches in the play? Yes, but barely; Othello has 274 speeches, two more than Iago (the next most number of speeches is Desdemona with 165). Do we as an audience focus on him? Sure. Do we root for him? I’d argue yes, but even those who would argue against this would have to admit that we root for him more than just about any other character in the play (Iago? please. Desdemona or Cassio? I’d categorize our feeling for them more along the lines of pity than support).
But what is he trying to achieve? As the play opens, he already has what he wants: Desdemona. As the play enters its second act, he would seem to have a new goal, defeating the Turks at Cyprus. But the storm and Shakespeare’s plot rob him of this goal. What’s he got left in terms of goals for the remainder of the play? Not a whole lot; or at least not much that is explicitly stated or actively pursued.
What about Iago?
Is he the main character? While he has two fewer speeches than Othello, he has over two hundred more lines in those speeches (1097 compared to 888). His longest speech is longer than Othello’s longest (46 vs. 43). Iago has seven soliloquies of ten lines or longer (plus an additional handful of asides); Othello, on the other hand, has only three (including the “put out the light” speech in the final scene over what he assumes [and probably] is Desdemona’s sleeping body).
I would say that it’s pretty obvious that we as an audience do not root for him, but we certainly know that he has a goal: to bring down Othello. It’s stated to Roderigo, shared with us, and obvious. He talks to us.
Is Iago our villainous protagonist, in much the same fashion as Gloucester in Richard III?
But what does that make Othello? He definitely falls under the definition of “tragic hero.” As I’ve discussed in the past, we get much of our concepts of tragedy from good ol’ Aristotle, who tells us that our tragic hero must be subjected to a reversal of fortune (almost always from good to bad). This reversal, causing fear and pity in the audience, then results in catharsis, a release of emotions, an emotional cleansing.
[from my former post:]
According to Aristotle, the reversal of fortune is caused by the central character’s hamartia. Many have incorrectly translated this as “tragic flaw” as if it was some kind of character flaw or personality defect that causes the downfall. But, technically, this is incorrect. Hamartia is an “error in judgment.” It comes from hamartanein, which was the situation of an archer missing his target; so, really, it’s more like the character is trying to achieve his goal, but a mistake carries his downfall.
Aristotle also posits that the tragic hero should achieve some kind of anagnorisis, or recognition or revelation about his situation and his position in the world/universe (or sometime just between himself and his antagonist).
So how does Othello fit the scheme?
Well, his reversal of fortune is from courageous general to weak, controlled, jealous man. His hamartia or error in judgment is not just believing what Iago tells him, but immediately jumping to both the conclusion that Desdemona is unfaithful, but that the two lovers must die. Now his anagnorisis is a little tougher: he doesn’t so much as realize Iago is behind all of this, as has that knowledge shoved in his face. But he does realize his own outsider place in the non-Moorish world.
Can you have both a villainous protagonist and a tragic hero?
I guess you can in Othello.