Othello as a Military Man

In telling the story of how he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant, Iago says that three influential men approached Othello on Iago's behalf, "But he, as loving his own pride and purposes, / Evades them, with a bombast circumstance / Horribly stuff'd with epithets of war" (1.1.12-14). "Bombast" is cotton stuffing; "circumstance" is wordy rigmarole; and "epithets of war" are military terms. In short, Iago accuses Othello of using phony military reasons to give the job to Cassio, who has no military experience. However, later in the scene, after the enraged Brabantio declares that he will hunt Othello down, Iago admits that Venice doesn't have a better military man than Othello. He tells Roderigo that Othello won't lose his job over his marriage to Desdemona because the Venetian Senate can't do without him. "Another of his fathom [depth of experience] they have none, / To lead their business" (1.1.152-153). [Scene Summary]

Brabantio, leading a group of armed men, confronts Othello, who is accompanied by another group of armed men. Brabantio charges Othello with stealing his daughter and orders his men take Othello prisoner. Swords are drawn, and it looks as if a brawl is about to break out, but Othello calms the situation with a few words. He then says, "Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter" (1.2.83-84). He seems to be implying that because of his military experience he knows best when it's best to fight and when to hold fire. [Scene Summary]

To answer Brabantio's charge that he has used drugs and magic on Desdemona, Othello tells the story of the growth of his relationship with Desdemona. He starts his tale by saying, "Her father loved me; oft invited me; / Still question'd me the story of my life, / From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes, / That I have passed" (1.3.128-131). In other words, Brabantio often invited Othello over to tell war stories. The war stories were exciting; Othello has known victory and defeat, and he has seen many strange lands and people.

Later in the scene, the Duke tells Othello that he must leave for Cyprus immediately, even though he is newly married. The Duke says that the Venetians already have a good man in Cyprus, but "opinion, a sovereign mistress of effects, throws a more safer voice on you" (1.3.224-226). In other words, Othello's reputation is such that no one will feel safe until he is on the job. Othello replies that he is so used to the hardships of war that "the flinty and steel couch of war" is his "thrice-driven bed of down" (1.3.230-231). Flint is the hardest stone, and steel the hardest metal; a "thrice-driven bed of down" is the softest feather bed. He goes on, saying, "I do agnize [recognize] / A natural and prompt alacrity [readiness] / I find in hardness [hardship] " (1.3.231-233). In other words, not only is he used to hardship, but the prospect of hardship makes him eager to go. [Scene Summary]

Montano, the current governor of Cyprus, is glad to hear that Othello is coming to take over, "For I have served him, and the man commands / Like a full soldier" (2.1.35-36). The phrase "I have served him" indicates that Montano was Othello's subordinate. [Scene Summary]

When he can't get a straight answer about who is responsible for the fight between Cassio and Montano, Othello begins to lose patience and says, "'Zounds, if I stir, / Or do but lift this arm, the best of you / Shall sink in my rebuke" (2.3.207-209). Part of Othello's threat is a reminder that he is a better soldier than any of them. [Scene Summary]

In a speech so famous that it's often referred to simply as "Othello's farewell to his occupation" Othello says that even if Desdemona went to bed with the dirtiest, sweatiest soldiers in camp (the "pioners"), he would have been happy so long as he hadn't known, but now he can't be a soldier anymore:
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines
[deadly cannon], whose rude throats
The immortal Jove's dread clamours
[fearful thunder] counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!   (3.3.345-357)
To Othello, war itself is as exalted as the parade afterwards, but now that's all over for him. This isn't a rational statement. There's no rule of war that says that a man can't lead an army if his wife is unfaithful . And Othello isn't about to resign his position. He means what he feels, which is that if Desdemona doesn't love him, he's nothing. [Scene Summary]

Arriving on the scene after Othello has berated Desdemona about the handkerchief, Iago pretends surprise that Othello is angry. He exclaims, Can he be angry? I have seen the cannon, / When it hath blown his ranks into the air, / And, like the devil, from his very arm / Puff'd his own brother:--and is he angry?" (3.4.134--137). Iago doesn't finish his statement about the cannon and Othello, but he clearly means that he has seen Othello in battle, keeping his head when men were dying all around him. Iago is a habitual liar, but there is no reason for him to lie about how Othello has conducted himself in battle. As a matter of fact, Iago is probably silently congratulating himself on his ability to make Othello lose his cool, which is more than the deadly cannon could do. [Scene Summary]

In the first scene of Act 4 Iago works Othello into a rage of jealousy by making insinuations about what Desdemona and Cassio might be doing in bed. Othello falls into a trance, and when he wakes up, Iago's first words are, "How is it, general? Have you not hurt your head?" (4.1.59). Iago, by calling Othello "general," seems to imply that a leader of men shouldn't allow himself to get so much out of control. This idea is repeated by Lodovico at the end of the scene, after Othello has struck Desdemona. Lodovico asks wonderingly, "Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate / Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake?" (4.1.264-266). [Scene Summary]

When Emilia reveals Iago's guilt, Othello attacks Iago, but is restrained, and his sword is taken from him. In the confusion Iago stabs his wife and runs away. Montano and the rest of the men pursue Iago, leaving Gratiano to guard Othello. Gratiano stands outside of Othello's door with a sword, and inside Othello finds another sword. Once he has armed himself, Othello calls through the door, "Uncle, I must come forth" (5.2.254). Gratiano, Desdemona's uncle and probably an older man, responds that because Othello is unarmed, he will suffer if he tries to leave the room. Othello calls again, "Look in upon me then and speak with me, / Or, naked as I am, I will assault thee" (5.2.257-258). Othello is not "naked" (i.e., unarmed), so he's tricking Gratiano. The trick works; Gratiano opens the door and asks Othello what the matter is. At this point Othello could use his abilities as a soldier to overwhelm Gratiano and escape, but that's not what happens. Othello says,
                  Behold, I have a weapon;
A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier's thigh: I have seen the day,
That, with this little arm and this good sword,
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop
[your strength]. But (O vain boast!)
Who can control his fate? 'tis not so now.
Be not afraid, though you do see me weapon'd . . . .   (5.2.259-266)
Then Othello turns to grieve over the body of Desdemona. We know that he doesn't give up his sword because a little later he wounds Iago with it, but he has given up the idea of using his military abilities to solve his problems. [Scene Summary]