Othello as Great of Heart

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‘For he was great of heart’ - Cassio
How far do you agree that Othello is presented as great of heart in this extract and elsewhere in the
play?
To say that a character is “great of heart” would suggest they have positive qualities, such as they are generous,
kind, courageous and fearless. In the context of which the play is set, these are all attributes that would
contribute to the status of an individual. At the beginning of Othello, all these qualities can bee seen within the
character of Othello, hence making it clear as to why he is referred to as “Noble Moor”, “Valiant Moor” and
“Brave Moor”, however, it has been argued, that due to his own hamartia (jealousy), by the end of the play,
Othello’s personality completely changes, as expressed in the extract. The play follows the breakdown of the
marriage between Othello and Desdemona as Othello is too easily influenced by those around him, most
notably, Iago.
At the beginning of the extract Shakespeare presents Othello’s corrupted nature through his soliloquy. Othello
starts by trying to make excuses for his actions, in particular, for having killed Desdemona. Shakespeare begins
Othello’s soliloquy by saying “a word or two before you go” emphasising Othello’s desperation to justify what
he has done, thus showing he is in fact cowardly rather than courageous, as he would rather make excuses for
his actions and therefore he is not presented as great of heart. The critic T.S Eliot supports this view by saying
“Othello is just trying to justify his actions”. Furthermore, by saying “a word or two” suggests that Othello
does not have a lot to say for his actions, nevertheless, he is willing to try, thus reinforcing the idea that he is
only trying to make excuses for his actions and therefore is not presented as great of heart. In making his
excuses Othello reminds us of his past, “I have done the state some service”, this mirrors the beginning of the
play in Act 1 Scene 2 where Othello says “My services which I have done the signiory shall out-tongue his
complaints”. Here, Othello can also be seen to be trying to justify his actions, in this case, marrying
Desdemona. Shakespeare’s use of repetition of the idea of Othello’s military success suggests that it is the only
continually “good” attribute to Othello - his loyalty to his state. Shakespeare possibly includes the use of
retrospective to remind us that Othello was not always the “bad” character we now perceive him to be. At the
beginning of the play he can be seen to live up to his noble character, he is confident and composed; for
example, when facing confrontation by Brabantio, he doesn’t shy away instead says “I must be found. My
parts, my title, and my perfect soul. Shall manifest me rightly.”. This, therefore shows that he was once “great
of heart”, he is fearless when it comes to confrontation, yet not big headed in doing so. Furthermore, throughout
the first act he is referred to as “General”, “Valiant” and “Brave” by the other characters, in particular, the
Duke, thus emphasising how respected he was by others. However, Shakespeare presents not all the characters
sharing this view, Othello is categorised as ‘lascivious moor’ ‘thick lips’ and ‘Barbary horse’, these negative
terms employed by Iago emphasises to the audience the extent of racial hatred Othello has to overcome and
reveal to us the extent of composure he retains despite this. This idea can be further seen when Brabantio
confronts Othello concerning his elopement with Desdemona: “thou hast enchanted her!”, referring to the
Jacobean stereotype that black men used witchcraft and that the only way Desdemona could have possibly
married Othello is if she was under a spell. Othello, however does not lower himself to Brabantio’s level, once
again, revealing his composed nature, confidence and kindness. Thus showing that at the beginning of the play
he was ‘great of heart’.
It is in Act 3 Scene 3 that we begin to question as to whether Othello is “great of heart”. Up until this point
Othello has demonstrated his noble qualities which make him “great of heart”, however, under the influence
of Iago, Othello’s jealousy takes over revealing an unkind side to him. Iago describes him as the “green eyed
monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on”, emphasising his complete change in personality, from
someone who is kind and generous to someone who has been completely taken over by jealousy. Shakespeare
shows the scale of this personality change by having Othello himself acknowledge his change in personality
by saying “Farewell: Othello’s occupation gone!”, thus emphasis his change from being “great of heart” to
being the “green eyed monster”. Another way in which Othello’s corrupt nature is exposed is when he tells
Iago that he will “tear her all to pieces”, referring to Desdemona, whom he goes on to kill in Act 5 Scene 2.
Shakespeare uses the verb “tear” to emphasise the brutality of his actions, in particular, his animalistic nature,
which was referred to in the first scene of the play, this idea is further emphasised in Act 5 Scene 2 in the line
just before he stabs himself, “I took by th’throat the circumcised dog And smote him thus.” This shows that,
by the end of the play, there is no distinction between the “monster” within Othello in Act 3 Scene 3 and the
“barbary horse” and “black ram” mentioned in the first scene of the play. Thus it could be suggested that in
Act 1 Scene 1, Shakespeare was foreshadowing the disastrous consequences of Othello’s hamartia and how it
would transform him from being a man “great of heart” to the animal he is described to be by Iago. O’Toole
attacks Othello for the influence he allows his hamartia to have on him by explaining, ”he carries his fatal flaw
of jealousy around like a walking stick, ready to be kicked out from underneath him”. Thus showing that
Othello is not “great of heart”, but pathetic and easily taken advantage of.
Othello appears to follow the stereotype of the tragic hero, however, unlike the tragic hero, Othello fails to win
the admiration of the audience as his struggle does not reveal his pride nor other good attributes related to a
struggle instead, his hamartia consumes him leading to his public tragic doom. For the Elizabethan audience,
by veering away from the stereotypical structure of an Elizabethan Tragedy, Shakespeare will have kept better
hold of his audience’s attention. The Elizabethan audience had a reputation for being particularly volatile,
often beginning to watch the play several acts in and leaving several acts early. By demonstrating Othello’s
total fall from grace without the development of the characteristics that come from such a struggle, Shakespeare
redefines the idea of a tragedy, thus making it more interesting and watchable for his audience. Thus, it could
be argued that Othello is not presented as “great of heart” for the reason that it would be boring for his
Elizabethan audience.
Overall, to say that Othello is “great of heart” is arguably wrong. In the earlier Acts of the play, Othello can
be seen to demonstrate the attributes of a character who is “great of heart”, yet this appears to be a facade for
the “green eyed monster” that consumes within him. By Act 3 Scene 3, as acknowledged by Othello himself,
his “occupation” as the noble, valiant moor has diminished. He turns into an aggressive animal that was
foreshadowed by Iago, and can hardly be portrayed a “great of heart”. His treatment and eventual killing of
Desdemona reinforces this idea as a man who is “great of heart” would not doubt the faithfulness of his wife
due to the word of others, let alone have the ability to kill them. By the end of the play, Othello no longer
displays any of the attributes of a man who is “great of heart” - he is not kind, generous, fearless nor
courageous. Instead, he is jealous, cowardly and spiteful, and thus, cannot be described as “great of heart”.
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