Aristotle wrote that since the aim of a tragedy is to arouse pity and fear through an alteration in the status of the central character, he must be a figure with whom the audience can identify and whose fate can trigger these emotions. Aristotle said that the ideal protagonist should be ” a man who is highly renowned and prosperous”. The key figures of Greek tragedy, such as Oedipus or Medea, come from the highest strata of society.
The Psychology of tragedy suggests a low tolerance for disorder and a respect for tradition which favours the social status quo. Equilibrium is reached at the end of most classic tragedies is signaled by a return to conformity.
Shakespeare’s tragedies continues the tradition of the classics; key figures such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear all have royal blood running through their veins.This clearly links to the social attitudes of Elizabethan England, which was orientated around social class. Society was largely based on birth and blood and there were limited opportunities for advancement, especially for those on a lower social scale. There was a well defined and accepted hierarchy which they believed was ordained by God.In Macbeth, it is the protagonist’s destruction of the ‘natural order’ by killing God’s anointed ruler on earth, which is his greatest crime.
In Othello, Iago is massively professionally ambitious and believes himself to be ‘worth no worse a place’ than Cassio. His plot unravels Othello the man and with it the accepted social order. Iago is bitter towards Othello because he has not been given the promotion he thinks he deserves, which would have enriched him and elevated him to the upper class. Instead, Othello promotes someone who already has money and education, which Iago lacks. Iago’s revenge is partly expressed in mercenary terms when in Act 1 Scene 3 he continually tells Roderigo, ‘Put money in thy purse.’ Iago’s envy is primarily about money and the status it confers, which is why he is happy to rob Roderigo of his wealth at the same time as he is betraying Othello.
At the end of the play Lodovico, Montano and Gratiano are used to give voice to socially prescribed standards of decency. They assume power and control and restore social order – announcing ‘Cassio rules in Cyprus’.
Nearly all the characters in ‘Othello’ speak in educated English that the audience would expect their betters and noble folk to speak. It is a mark of Othello’s ‘civilisation’ that he has an excellent command of language. His nobility of speech accentuates his heroic stature.
If you have already read Arthur Miller’s ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ – you can consider how a modern tragedy such as ‘Death of a Salesman’ deals with the social status of its characters. Also, when making your notes on ‘Othello’ look for key quotes relating to the maintaining or destruction of the social hierachy. A key scene for this would be the appearance of Brabantio in front of the Venetian court.