What is Othello's tragic flaw that causes his downfall?

Othello's tragic flaw is often identified as jealousy, but other possible tragic flaws include insecurity and poor judgment.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In literature, a tragic flaw (or hamartia in Greek) is a trait that causes a character's downfall. Othello's tragic flaw is often identified as jealousy, and he is indeed a jealous man. The thought of his wife, Desdemona, with another man nearly drives him crazy. Yet behind this jealousy is something more. Othello has a strong tendency to act before he thinks and before he knows all aspects of a situation. He is impulsive and often thoughtless, and this perhaps is even more of a tragic flaw than his jealousy.

Othello begins the play with an impulsive act. He marries Desdemona against her father's wishes without fully considering the consequences. Thankfully for him, the duke and the senate are sympathetic to Othello and Desdemona and override the desires of her enraged father.

When Cassio is attacked by Roderigo, Othello jumps to conclusions and acts without knowing the full story. Listening to the dishonest Iago, Othello dismisses Cassio without taking into account the latter's side of the story.

Later in the play, Othello continues his impulsiveness to the point of violence. He refuses to listen to Desdemona's explanations and protestations of innocence but again believes Iago. Othello fails to see clearly and to look past a single handkerchief (which is no absolute proof of any wrong doing). He ends up murdering his wife in an impulsive rage. Then, at the end of the play, Othello draws his sword and kills himself, impulsively ending his own life after he has made a mess of everyone else's because he leaps before he looks, plows ahead without the facts, and acts on impulse rather than reason.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Videos

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is often suggested that Othello's fatal flaw is jealousy, but I would argue that this doesn't really strike at the heart of the matter. Yes, Othello is jealous, but before Iago suggests to him that Desdemona might be cuckolding him, this is not something Othello has thought about. He has previously treated Desdemona in a kind and gallant way and has advanced Cassio because he respects and admires him.

The fact that Iago is so easily able to manipulate Othello points us towards his real tragic flaw—Othello is naive in a way that suggests he suffers from insecurity. Iago is able to play upon Othello's insecurities in order to convince him to greater and greater foolish acts.

There is, of course, good reason for Othello to be insecure. The language of the play makes it very clear that there are many in Italy who do not think an "old black ram" such as Othello should be in a position of power in the army and certainly should not be married to Desdemona. Desdemona is asked to defend her love for him because it is so unbelievable that she should be interested in a black man. Othello is obviously aware of this. The insecurity exists at the back of his mind.

As such, when Iago suggests to him that Desdemona does not really love him and is instead dallying with Cassio—the epitome of young white manhood—Othello allows this insecurity to grow into something larger. Arguably, if Othello had been more secure in Desdemona's love for him and in his own worth, he would not have allowed Iago to sow the seeds of distrust within him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could argue that Othello's tragic flaw is jealousy. Othello trusts the malevolent Iago, who is dedicated to causing his downfall. Iago convinces Othello that Michael Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, which sparks Othello's jealousy. Othello's jealousy is also fueled by his self-doubt and low self-esteem. He understands that he is an aging foreigner, who is not particularly refined or attractive. Despite being initially dismissive, Othello eventually demands to have proof of his wife's infidelity. Iago then goes on to tell Othello that he overheard Cassio talking in his sleep about his relations with Desdemona. Something as circumstantial as the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona becomes significant when she no longer possesses it. Iago uses the absent handkerchief to further influence Othello into believing that his wife is unfaithful. Unfortunately, Othello cannot see past his wife's apparent infidelity and ends up murdering her out of jealousy. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Othello's suffering results mostly from his poor judgment. He trusts the wrong people and mistrusts those who are most loyal to him (Desdemona and Cassio). In Act 3, he sets aside his sensible, military side and falls prey to Iago's manipulation.

It must be noted in Othello's case, though, that while he might share Brutus's tragic flaw (from Julius Caesar), Othello deserves more sympathy from the audience. In a sense, he is a victim of his time period. While Brutus exercised poor judgment throughout Julius Caesar, he was used to commanding respect because of his family and character and did not have to fight against prejudice. In contrast, Othello's poor judgment largely results from his self-doubt regarding his true acceptance into European society. He has been conditioned to think that he is not good enough for Desdemona or the inner sanction of white society.

While some argue that Othello's tragic flaw is jealousy, he really does not suffer from that until Iago plants seeds of doubt in his heart regarding Desdemona. Normally, Shakespeare's tragic characters establish a pattern connected to their tragic flaws, and there really is no pattern to justify jealousy as a flaw with which Othello has constantly struggled.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Othello, the namesake of the play is a powerful and celebrated general in the Venitian army. Othello holds himself in high regard and suffers from a tragic flaw, or hamartia—the thing that brings his downfall is something from his own personality. In the play, Othello’s tragic flaw is his sense of self-importance, what the ancient Greeks would have called hubris, translated to mean excessive pride.

Othello holds himself with high regard. He sees his accomplishments and feels pride in what he has done. He came from humble origins and is a foreigner among the Venetians, yet he is considered brave and has earned his noble position through hard work and valor. It makes sense that Othello values his reputation above almost anything else because as black man in Italy, he has faced constant derision from others his entire life.

His desire to keep his reputation intact becomes all-consuming in the play and eventually leads to his murder of Desdemona,

To try me with affliction, had they rained

All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head,

Steeped me in poverty to the very lips,

Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,

I should have found in some place of my soul.

A drop of patience. But, alas, to make me

The fixed figure for the time of scorn

To point his slow and moving finger at!

Yet could I bear that too, well, very well.

But there where I have garnered up my heart (act 4, scene 2)

Othello tells Desdemona that he has been given “all kinds of sores and shames” on his head—alluding to the story of Job. The sores and shame is a metaphor for the injustice he thinks Desdemona has done him in her infidelity. Her cheating will cost him his reputation and make him a laughingstock among his men and the citizens of Venice. To Othello, who values his reputation because of what it cost to earn, the loss of his image and respect is a step too far. This view is what leads to him strangling her.

The reason his pride is his flaw is that if he had taken a moment to investigate more, to see beyond his reputation, he might have realized that Iago was not trustworthy. Instead, he sees the slightest threat to his reputation, and because he values it more than his wife, he kills her to protect and avenge it. Ultimately, Othello is brought down because he rejects the very thing that made him a respected general—bravery. He is no longer brave in the face of ridicule and instead lets his fear, jealousy, and pride lead him to murder.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Othello is portrayed as a courageous, successful general, who is deeply in love Desdemona and respected by the Venetian authorities. He is also depicted as a loyal, eloquent man, who is celebrated for his accomplishments on the battlefield. Despite Othello's numerous positive character traits, his tragic flaw leads to demise at the end of the play. One could argue that Othello's tragic flaw is jealousy. Iago cleverly manipulates Othello into believing that Michael Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona behind his back. Iago recognizes that Othello is a social outcast in Venetian society and is aware of his low self-esteem. Iago is also clever enough to know that Michael Cassio is the perfect man to disrupt Othello's marriage because he is handsome and talented. Interestingly, Iago only has to insinuate that Desdemona is unfaithful before Othello's jealousy takes over. Othello's jealousy blinds him to the reality of the situation and he willingly accepts unsubstantial evidence as proof of his wife's infidelity. Almost immediately Othello's feelings of jealousy consume his mind and fuel his motivation to seek revenge on Desdemona. Tragically, Othello's jealousy influences him to murder his wife and leads to his demise.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Othello's tragic flaw is a mixture of pride and impulsiveness. He's easily fooled and acts rashly, despite how discussing the matter directly would have solved his problems.

When Iago accuses Desdemona of being unfaithful, Othello believes him without question. He doesn't stop to consider whether Iago could be lying. Instead, he turns on his wife and murders her, even when she protests and begs him not to. His pride is so wounded at the thought that she could be having an affair with Cassio that he doesn't listen to reason or consider another path. He murders the woman he claims to love.

Othello is too impulsive. He listens in on conversations and considers evidence that Iago orchestrates to make Desdemona and Cassio look guilty. A simple, direct conversation with his wife and Cassio would have resolved the matter and made it clear the entire thing was a ruse motivated by Iago's jealousy and hatred. Instead, Othello is so confident in what he hears and so impulsive in response to it, that he, Desdemona, Emilia, and Roderigo all become victims of Iago's scheme—though, Othello only directly kills himself and Desdemona. Iago kills Emilia and Roderigo.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If Othello had a tragic flaw, it would be jealousy or pride.  He is more concerned with posessing Desdemona than loving her.  Essentially, he was jealous because of his pride.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The flaw that Iago plays on so ruthlessly, and the one that ultimately causes Othello's fall, and Desdemona's death, is jealousy. Othello is so blind with rage at the thought that his wife might have been unfaithful to him that he is incapable of listening to reason. He is particularly susceptible to Iago's machinations because he of a different race, and perhaps already feels like an outsider, and as important, because he is much older than his beautiful wife.He murders his wife from rage born of pure jealousy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team