The shape of tragedy

Aristotelian tragedy

In common with most Elizabethan theatre (and all of Shakespeare’s plays), Othello is a play in five acts which corresponds to the typical structure of a tragedy. Aristotle in his Poetics, defined the shape of drama as requiring:
  1. Exposition – introducing the main characters and the potential areas for future dramatic conflict
  2. Rising action, or complication, in which conflict and relationships are developed
  3. Climax or crisis – the conflict reaches its height with perhaps an impasse, but there is no going back regarding the protagonist’s fortunes
  4. Falling action – the catastrophe which engulfs the protagonist, although more positive action may also be initiated
  5. Resolution or (as it was later termed) dénouement, in which everything is untangled and the action is brought to a close. 

Act 1

Exposition - Othello’s noble status is demonstrated; the character and motivation of Iago (jealous at being overlooked, suspicious of his wife’s relationship with his master) is revealed; Othello and Desdemona’s love is exposed; Iago encourages Roderigo’s thwarted love; the context is of likely warfare.

Act 2 

Rising action, or complication – Iago engineers Cassio’s drunkenness, demotion and desire for Desdemona’s help (which will later inflame Othello’s jealousy) and encourages Roderigo to act as a tool for Iago’s retribution.

Act 3

Climax or crisis – As Desdemona intercedes for Cassio, Iago persuades Othello that she is being unfaithful to him with Cassio and uses her fallen handkerchief as ‘evidence’ until Othello vows his betrayers will die. Desdemona’s failure to ‘read’ her husband is contrasted by Bianca (Cassio’s girlfriend)’s understanding that love is precarious.

Act 4

Falling action – As Iago continues to work on him, using the fault lines in Cassio and Bianca’s relationship as further ‘evidence’, Othello temporarily loses his wits and the extent of the breakdown of his trust in Desdemona is witnessed by visitors from Venice as well as his stunned wife and her maid. However, both Roderigo and Emilia are becoming suspicious of Iago’s machinations, whose position is becoming less secure. The poignancy of the last scene prepares us for the tragedy to come.

Act 5

Resolution/dénouement – Roderigo is (apparently) killed and Desdemona suffocated, but then Iago’s plans unravel: Emilia exposes Iago’s role, Cassio is able to confront Othello and Roderigo provides incriminating evidence, all leading to the capture and future punishment of Iago. However, it is too late to avoid the destruction of Desdemona, Emilia and then Othello.
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