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ENGL100A Lecture Notes - Roderigo, Tyrant, Mandrake

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Diana Parry

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Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Incompatibility of Military Heroism & Love
Before and above all else, Othello is a soldier. From the earliest moments in the play, his career affects
his married life. Asking “fit disposition” for his wife after being ordered to Cyprus (I.iii.234), Othello
notes that “the tyrant custom . . . / Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war / My thrice-driven bed
of down” (I.iii.227–229). While Desdemona is used to better “accommodation,” she nevertheless
accompanies her husband to Cyprus (I.iii.236). Moreover, she is unperturbed by the tempest or Turks
that threatened their crossing, and genuinely curious rather than irate when she is roused from bed by
the drunken brawl in Act II, scene iii. She is, indeed, Othello’s “fair warrior,” and he is happiest when he
has her by his side in the midst of military conflict or business (II.i.179). The military also provides
Othello with a means to gain acceptance in Venetian society. While the Venetians in the play are
generally fearful of the prospect of Othello’s social entrance into white society through his marriage to
Desdemona, all Venetians respect and honor him as a soldier. Mercenary Moors were, in fact,
commonplace at the time.
Othello predicates his success in love on his success as a soldier, wooing Desdemona with tales of his
military travels and battles. Once the Turks are drownedby natural rather than military might
Othello is left without anything to do: the last act of military administration we see him perform is the
viewing of fortifications in the extremely short second scene of Act III. No longer having a means of
proving his manhood or honor in a public setting such as the court or the battlefield, Othello begins to
feel uneasy with his footing in a private setting, the bedroom. Iago capitalizes on this uneasiness, calling
Othello’s epileptic fit in Act IV, scene i, “*a+ passion most unsuiting such a man.” In other words, Iago is
calling Othello unsoldierly. Iago also takes care to mention that Cassio, whom Othello believes to be his
competitor, saw him in his emasculating trance (IV.i.75).
Desperate to cling to the security of his former identity as a soldier while his current identity as a lover
crumbles, Othello begins to confuse the one with the other. His expression of his jealousy quickly
devolves from the conventional—“Farewell the tranquil mind”—to the absurd:
Farewell the plum’d troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
One might well say that Othello is saying farewell to the wrong thingshe is entirely preoccupied with
his identity as a soldier. But his way of thinking is somewhat justified by its seductiveness to the
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