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William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe are often regarded as the finest playwrights in English Literature for their impressive use of language, characters and nuance in dramatic writing. While both Othello and Edward II are considered as tragedies, when studied through an Aristotelian perspective, Othello overshadows Marlowe’s tragic play with its detail to characters and scenes of catharsis. Both the plays exhibit Aristotle’s six elements- Characters, Action, Idea, Language, Music and Spectacle- in one form or the other, but Othello shines through as the ideal tragic play. Othello also exceeds in what Aristotle called catharsis, the vicarious experiencing of emotions through the characters in the play. The characters Othello, Desdemona and Iago are well-rounded and utterly human with human flaws, ideals of virtue, and destructive emotions of fear, love and jealousy.
Aristotle, in his book The Poetics, comments that a tragedy “is an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity and fear.”(Aristotle 32). He stresses the importance of characters that the audience can empathize with, and those they would want to invest in. He also speaks about the significance of the character’s values, and how he should reveal “moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids.”Their decisions, actions, voices and personas can have a huge effect on where the play is heading and how the audience will feel about them. Both the tragedies have characters that evoke such emotions and have their own personal motives, strengths, traits and roles.
In Edward II, only a couple of characters can be considered important- Gaveston, Edward II, Isabella and Mortimer Junior- while the rest are mainly supporting characters. Even among these four, we see Gaveston in only a couple of scenes, but is important only because of the role he plays in the king’s life. The protagonist of the play is a flat, static character, which is one of its main downfalls. Aristotle suggested that a good tragedy would ultimately bring forth a change in the tragic hero, which we don’t see in King Edward. Mortimer Junior and Isabella are more rounded than King Edward, but the audience would find it hard to emotionally invest in these characters.
In contrast, the characters in Othello are well-formed; Desdemona, Iago and Othello are flushed out with characteristic traits that sets them apart, and they each have their own distinctive voice. Othello comes across as a tragic hero quite clearly, and Iago is an obvious antagonist. A tragic hero is one who is initially in a high position who then falls through the course of the play, which Othello also goes through over the course of events.
Othello holds himself in high regard and talks of his “perfect soul” and title, establishing his prominence in Ventitian society (Shakespeare 1.2.31). However, his false modesty and subtle manipulation at the court (1.3.76-93) does hint at his cleverness and cunning ability that work towards maintaining his reputation. In contrast to Othello, we see Iago, the antagonist, make no such false proclamations about his character. He, in fact, quite simply states “I am not what I am” (1.1.65) right at the beginning which instantly marks him as the antagonist of the play. Although Iago can be a considered a static character who remain his same, evil self throughout the play, there can be no question that he is a well-rounded one. His sharp wit, sly remarks and deviously detailed scheming sets him apart as a revolutionary villain. Othello starts off as someone who has painstakingly risen in a very racist society. But, in the end, he tarnishes his reputation and even kills himself; the perfect ending for a tragic hero. The reader cannot help but empathize with him in his moments of suffering and repentance, therefore making him a compelling, dynamic character, unlike the hero in Edward II.
To Aristotle, the plot “is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy”. The plots in both Edward II and Othello are drawn out in the beginning, its pace quickens as it reaches the highest point of climax, and then dwindles down to an end. The plot structure is linear in both, but when the detailing is compared, Shakespeare does a brilliant job of moving through scenes quickly without rushing through them, unlike Marlowe, whose scenes seem a blur, and the audience is left reeling and confused at the bizarre turn of events. While this structure fits well with the play’s minor theme about how quickly everything can turn sour, when compared to Othello and judged by Aristotilian standards, it falls short on clarity and impact.
The emotional, dramatic speeches in Othello and its plot following the trajectory of an ideal play more distinctly than Edward II, succeeds in driving home the excitement and sentiment of the characters. Othello’s raging emotions gain momentum as the play progresses and he starts losing control, getting more physical with each scene until he completely yields to his madness and grief. The climax arc is well demarcated in the scene where Othello is caught in a dilemma as he tries to decide if he wants to go through with the plan or not. The audience is caught in this moment of uncertainty, and is able to empathize with Othello’s warring emotions. The plot structure, aids in deploying this intensity and subsequently arouses in the audience a reaction that is expected of a tragic play. Edward II fails to evoke feelings of such intensity because the scenes are too fleeting for the onlookers to deconstruct and stay invested in.
Aristotle also explains that it is integral the protagonist eventually recognizes his mistake, or to figure out something about himself. Othello eventually realizes the murder he has committed, and overcome with grief, he kills himself (Shakespeare 5.2.36). This realization and consequent action makes him a tragic hero the audience feels sympathy for. While some might argue that Othello only killed himself to secure his reputation, his shock, and mourning is sincere. On the other hand, neither King Edward nor Mortimer Junior ever go through repentance, realization or a eureka moment, inconsistent with Aristotle’s ideas of a classic tragedy.
The action scenes in both the plays are dramatic and all-encompassing, drawing on another one of Aristotle’s elements- Spectacle. Aristotle’s idea that “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet,” is one that shows how these plays were not primarily written to be read- but to be watched. Without watching the play, it can be hard to judge the spectacle of lights and sounds, and demeanor and stage placement of the characters. It would be especially interesting to see scenes on the war-front in Edward II and the bedroom-murder scene in Othello. In Edward II, the scene where King Edward is brutally murdered can be quite jarring and cathartic, especially with the light and sound effects. It is not hard to imagine the scene in Othello when Othello hugs Desdemona’s body in despair before he kills himself (Shakespeare 5.2), and the earlier scenes of merriment and fighting (2.3).
It is hard to think of merriment and revelry without thinking of music, another Aristotelian element of tragedy. Shakespeare and Marlowe both employ songs and music in their plays to great effect. Iago, Montano and Cassio sing (Shakespeare 65 &77-85), in the beginning of Act 3 scene 1, there are musicians and a clown entertaining which helps ease the tension that had been building up, but their abrupt departure foreshadows the bitter things to come. In Edward II, the use of war-related music- ringing “alarums”, trumpets and drums powerfully set the tone for the death, destruction and tragedy that is soon to follow. Both the music and spectacle elements of the play are best understood when seen first hand, which I unfortunately haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing.
Apart from these elements, the concepts of ideas and language are also interwoven to make a tragedy. Shakespeare is remarkable for his brilliant use of language. He uses wordplay, anaphora and metatheatrical language to pack in emotion, brilliance and substance all at once. He uses anaphora and dramatic language in Othello’s dialogues to subtly hint at his insincerity and craftiness. Iago’s dialogues, on the other hand, are straightforward and yet, it is this straightforwardness that aids him in deceiving everyone. Shakespeare manages to give each of his characters a unique voice, which is not very evident in Edward II. When compared to Othello, the dialogues in this play are shorter, less dramatic and straight to the point. Due to this, the music of language is lost, but the overall plot manages to pull through with its fast-paced action. These short dialogues reflect this tempo of the play, and there is a certain rhythm to it that is very different from Shakespearean plays.
Shakespeare, in Othello, manages to pull in themes of jealousy through Othello, manipulation through Iago, goodness through Desdemona and a subtle hint at racial prejudice that was present in the society. He artfully manages to personify these themes in his characters and presents them with nuance and human qualities. Edward II also explores many themes, the most evident ones being homosexuality and social order and hierarchy. Both the plays explore these in not-so-direct ways and yet, to the careful reader, these themes are not amiss. The ideas are carefully woven into the story and unlike morality plays, they do not try to preach or send a message- instead, through drama, they invite their audience to ponder over it themselves.
While both the plays have influences of Aristotelian elements, in terms of characters, plot and language, we see Othello outshine Edward II. Both the plays adopt all six elements in clever and subtly different ways. Yet, in the end, Othello could be seen as a play Aristotle would classify as the perfect tragedy.
Aristotle, Hutton, J., Zerba, M. and Gorman, D. (n.d.). Aristotle’s poetics.
Shakespeare, W. and Rose, C. (n.d.). Othello.
Marlowe, C. (2017). Edward ii. [Place of publication not identified]: Bloomsbury Arden.