The idea of heroism is one often associated with bravery, courage and valour; while nobility can be defined as being distinguished by one’s high rank or birth. Within Othello, Shakespeare questions the meaning behind both nobility and heroism in the context of a Venetian society. Through the actions of the play’s characters, the audience is left to wonder whether or not a person’s heroism is limited by how noble they were born, and how linked the two ideas are. The play’s tragic hero is Othello, the ‘noble moor’ as described by his wife the ‘exquisite lady’ Desdemona.
Desdemona plays the part of a high class Venetian woman; she is noble because she was born into nobility, she is Othello’s ‘true and loyal wife’, however, through her actions we question her heroism. She lies to her husband regarding the ‘not lost’ handkerchief, thus displaying cowardice, and had ‘deceived her father’ in marrying Othello, this is in many ways not heroic; Desdemona is proven to have lied in the past, coupled with the venetian stereotype of women being promiscuous prostitutes, some critics have blamed Desdemona for her demise, however, others like Estelle Taylor have deemed her a ‘heroine who is a victim of abuse’.
One interpretation of this could be that an audience would happily perceive Desdemona to be a heroine because of her nobility and class and not because of her actions. On the other hand, Desdemona does display the qualities of a heroine within some scenes of the play, she stands up to her father and displays a heroic confidence in her relationship with Othello, ‘I may profess Due to the Moor my lord. ‘ She speaks in blank verse, a style reserved for the noble and in Iambic pentameter, which emphasises her confidence as a woman.
Desdemona remains a complex character, her actions leave us to question how noble of a person she is; as S. N Garner puts she is either ‘pure or the cunning whore of venice’. Othello is too a very complex character, he is described as an idealist by some people, with no understanding of hierarchy. Othello has the qualities of Aristotle’s tragic hero; he starts the play in greatness but falls from grace due to a tragic flaw, or his hamartia. He longs to be accepted by his white Venetian peers, but fears his race stops this from happening; it is because of this that Iago, the play’s ‘motiveless malignity’ is able to ‘poison his ear’ so easily.
Othello uses the Venice verses Turkey war, which was a reality in Shakespeare’s time, as a vehicle to gain the nobility he was born without, but as a war hero feels he deserves. Othello for his efforts as a general is respected and highly thought of by many noblemen, he is called ‘valiant Othello’ by the Duke and this cements Othello’s confidence. We see this in the scene involving himself and Brabantio, Othello speaks like an ‘honouree Whiteman’ as Anita Loomba puts. He like his wife speaks in blank verse and iambic pentameter.
When there is a war going on, Othello is at his most heroic and noble. However, as the play progresses, the Venetians win the war and Othello is left with no reason to be deemed as a noble hero. He becomes uneasy, and it is here that his insecurities over his race are most exposed by Iago, furthermore it could be said Othello’s willingness to trust Iago is derived from him being a cultural outsider; without war Othello gradually loses the confidence in his delivery, by the play’s climax he no longer speaks in Iambic pentameter, as he mourns the death of his wife he says She’s gone. I am abused and my Relief must be to loathe her’ His speech is of an irregular pattern and the use of enjambment further highlights Othello’s emotional and physical breakdown. Othello’s insecurities are there for the audience to see, Shakespeare leaves us questioning if Othello was ever allowed by Venetian society to be a hero, indeed by the end ‘he’s an outsider’ as Loomba puts, something he tried hard to not be.
Othello’s reputation as a nobleman was desperately important to him, in contrast to Loomba some critics like Cowhig have said ‘Othello is essentially noble but is brought down by Iago’s villainy’ in addiction to this, GK Hunter who describes Othello as a ‘black man with a white soul’ and Iago as a ‘white man with a black soul’ Othello in my opinion is noble by nature, but the fact he is not noble by birth means he is subject to the insecurities which bring himself down, on the other hand one could argue Othello’s race does make it harder for the audience to believe in his heroism, but he still achieves it successfully.
In conclusion, Shakespeare, through the dictation of his characters brings debate to the idea of heroism and nobility. I believe, Othello is a hero to begin, and is a truly nobleman by nature, however in the context of the 15th century where the slave trade had just begun, he is never truly accepted as either in Venice. Desdemona in contrast is noble by nurture, she is also heroic in some respects, but also shows some cowardice, our interpretation of her heroism is derived from her nobility, something she has and Othello doesn’t.