Study Guide

Othello Warfare

By William Shakespeare


Act 1, Scene 1

Though I do hate him as I do hell pains,
Yet, for necessity of present life,
I must show out a flag and sign of love—
Which is indeed but sign. (1.1.171-174)

After stirring up trouble for Othello with Brabantio, Iago says he needs to get lost because it wouldn't look right for him to be present when his general is confronted by Desdemona's father. For now, Iago says he needs to pretend he loves Othello. What's interesting to us about this passage is the way Iago uses the language of war to describe his relationship with Othello – he'll "show out a flag" as a sign of his loyalty (kind of like waving a peace sign when you have every intention of attacking your enemy). Although Iago is an ensign (the lowest rank of commissioned officers), he acts more like a brilliant general as he wages psychological warfare against Othello throughout the play.

Despise me
If I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capped to him: and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.
But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war,
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators. For, 'Certes,' says he,
'I have already chose my officer.'
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damned in a fair wife,
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster—unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togèd consuls can propose
As masterly as he. Mere prattle, without practice
Is all his soldiership. (1.1.9-28)

Iago claims that he hates Othello because Othello passed him over for a promotion and chose Michael Cassio as a lieutenant instead. Iago also says that Cassio doesn't know any more about warfare than a housewife or a spinster does – he's never been on the battlefield and his knowledge of war is more "bookish" than experiential. This passage speaks to the way warfare is considered a man's realm (women didn't participate in battle). It also raises the question of why Iago hates Othello so much – Othello's refusal to promote Iago is just one of several reasons Iago gives for setting out to destroy the general.

Act 1, Scene 3

Come, Desdemona, I have but an hour
Of love, of worldly matters, and direction,
To spend with thee. We must obey the time. (1.3.340-342)

Because Othello is called off to war soon after he elopes with Desdemona, the couple must cram their "honeymoon" into one hour.

Let her have your voice.
Vouch with me, heaven, I therefore beg it not
To please the palate of my appetite,
Nor to comply with heat (the young affects
In me defunct) and proper satisfaction,
But to be free and bounteous to her mind.
And heaven defend your good souls that you think
I will your serious and great business scant
For she is with me. No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seal with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation. (1.3.295-309)

Othello is concerned that people will think him unprofessional or distracted by love. He assures everybody that love will not get in the way of war, as he has his priorities straight.

The tyrant custom, most grave senators,
Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war
My thrice-driven bed of down. I do agnize
A natural and prompt alacrity
I find in hardness, and do undertake
These present wars against the Ottomites.
Most humbly therefore bending to your state,
I crave fit disposition for my wife.
Due reference of place and exhibition,
With such accommodation and besort
As levels with her breeding. (1.3.262-272)

Without hesitation, Othello puts aside his new bride to dash off to the war, which seems to suggest that he values his position in the military above his love. On the other hand, we could also point out how Othello goes out of his way to make sure his new wife will be taken care of while he's away.


That I did love the Moor to live with him
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world. My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honor and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him. (1.3.283-294)

Desdemona doesn't want to remain behind while her new husband runs off to Cyprus to fight against the Turks. For one thing, she loves Othello and simply wants to be with him. But, it's also important to note that Desdemona seems drawn to the action and adventure of warfare, which is a realm that's only available to men. Check out "Quotes" for gender if you want to know about Desdemona's desire to be a warrior.

Act 2, Scene 1

Come, let us to the castle.—
News, friends! Our wars are done. The Turks are
How does my old acquaintance of this isle?—
Honey, you shall be well desired in Cyprus,
I have found great love amongst them. O, my sweet,
I prattle out of fashion, and I dote
In mine own comforts.—I prithee, good Iago,
Go to the bay and disembark my coffers.
Bring thou the master to the citadel.
He is a good one, and his worthiness
Does challenge much respect.—Come, Desdemona.
Once more, well met at Cyprus. (2.1.221-233)

After a storm destroys the Turks' ships and the big war is cancelled, Othello is overjoyed to see his "fair warrior," Desdemona. He "prattle[s]" on (rather sweetly) until he catches himself and quickly returns to business.

Act 2, Scene 3

All's well now,
Come away to bed.  To Montano.  Sir, for your hurts,
Myself will be your surgeon.—Lead him off.
                                                           Montano is led off.
Iago, look with care about the town
And silence those whom this vile brawl
Come, Desdemona. 'Tis the soldiers' life
To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife. (2.3.269-277)

Once again, Othello's lovemaking has been interrupted by fighting (after Iago gets Cassio drunk and Cassio gets into a brawl, Othello is called upon to settle the matter). At this point, Othello seems resigned to the fact that such interruptions are par for the course when one is a military general.

Act 5, Scene 2

Soft you. A word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they
   know 't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this.
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.                           [He stabs himself. ]

Here, Othello says he "loved" Desdemona "too well" (too much), which suggests that he doesn't really understand the implications of what he's done. We're also interested in the way Othello wants to control the way people think of him (after his death). He wants to be remembered as a soldier who "has done the state some service" and who has killed a lot of Venice's enemies. Yet, he also seems to think of his murder of Desdemona as a crime against the Venetian state, as he compares himself to a "turban'd Turk" by killing himself with the same sword he has used to smite Venice's enemies on the battlefield.

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. But—O vain boast!— (5.2.310-315)

After Othello strangles Desdemona (for her alleged adultery) on the bed the couple shares, Othello's reference to his "weapon," which rests upon his "soldier's thigh," seems blatantly phallic, don't you think? Othello's words forge a disturbing relationship between sex and death.