“This Sorrow’s Heavenly:” Othello As Epic Warrior
There is an abundance of theory as to the necessity of Othello’s fall at the hands of Iago, most of which concerns itself with specific characteristics of the Moor and his ancient. “Is Othello stupid?” some ask. “Is Iago pure evil?” One essayist even goes so far as to hinge the entirety of his inquiry on whether the Moor’s wife laments the loss of her marriage rites or rights, suggesting that the differences in meaning between the two determine the whole of Desdemona’s character and thus the outcome of the play.
But a serious treatment of the two main characters, Othello and Iago, in the larger context of narrative itself yields new insight into the Moor’s inescapable doom, for the general of Venice is not a foreigner merely in the drama’s setting, but also in the very dramatic context in which he is written. He is a righteous warrior plucked from a different kind of story – the heroic epic – and his mere presence in this tale of personal and political intrigue is enough to damn him irrevocably.
Two essential points are made abundantly and quickly clear in the text: one, that Othello thinks of himself first and foremost as an adventurer/ warrior of semi-divine stature, and two, that this is not a war story. When Brabantio confronts him at the beginning of the play with followers armed and drawn, the Moor’s immediate response is clearly dismissive if not outright contemptuous: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them./ Good signor, you shall more command with years/ Than with your weapons (I.ii. 60-62).” When Brabantio presses the issue, commanding his followers to “Subdue him at his peril,” the Moor again brushes them off, declaring, “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it/ Without a prompter (I.ii. 83-85).”
These remarks could perhaps be seen simply as attempts at conciliation if the latter were not so clearly egocentric; despite the fact that both his followers and Brabantio’s are ready to fight, Othello only addresses whether or not he will enter the conflict. Whether or not Shakespeare wrote it with this purpose in mind, it nevertheless implies that Othello thinks only his participation in the fight matters. This conception of himself as a peerless warrior stays with Othello until the very moment that he learns of Iago’s treachery and is undone: he warns Gratiano, “Behold, I have a weapon… 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 (V.ii. 268-73)” even as he prepares to kill himself.
Perhaps this bellicose persona would have suited him well in a war story, but it is made clear at the beginning of Act II that Othello is no such tale. The threat of the Turkish fleet, so imminent in Act I that the Venetian authorities cannot even spare their general time to consummate his marriage, blows away without manifesting. Othello, who acknowledges “A natural and prompt alacrity/ I do find in hardness (I.iii. 235-6)” announces the destruction of the Turkish fleet himself – “News, friends! Our wars are done, the Turks are drowned” (II.i. 204).
Thus Shakespeare strips the Moor of any opportunity to prove the valor or martial prowess on which his position and reputation rest. He even belies it in Act V when Othello goes to strike Iago and is promptly disarmed by Montano, prompting the general to exclaim, “I am not valiant neither,/ But every puny whipster gets my sword (V.ii. 252-253)” – an occurrence made all the more significant by the fact that it is the only time in the story that Othello enters combat. He is not merely a foreigner to Venice, but also fundamentally miscast in a dramatic context wherein his strengths are either made inapplicable or brought to bear against him as devastating weaknesses.
It is not only Othello who considers himself a heroic warrior. Other characters either believe in his epic identity or help to propagate it without meaning to, as Brabantio does at the beginning of the play by declaring him, “…an abuser of the world, a practicer/ Of arts inhibited and out of warrant (I.i. 64-80).” Although this accusation puts him in an entirely negative light, it still reinforces the idea that Othello is in some way supernatural.
Furthermore, it is his identity as an epic adventurer that wins him Desdemona’s hand. When asked to explain how he wooed her, Othello tells the gathered noblemen that Desdemona, “…loved me for the dangers I had passed,/ And I loved her that she did pity them (I.i.169-70).” In his article, “A Vulgarization of Desdemona,” David Berkeley puts it succinctly: “Shakespeare makes it plain that Desdemona falls in love with Othello the hero... Her love grew from an admiration of his exploits into an admiration of a mind fitted to military greatness (Berkeley 237)."
Though it may have served him well in the events of his life that precede the action of the play, the identity, “Othello as epic warrior” here works against him, both internally and externally. The Moor’s emotions become easily confused when he is forced to deal with questions of his wife’s fidelity; his instincts were learned on the battlefield, where every decision is a matter of life and death. Thus the idea of Desdemona being unfaithful to him cannot be a merely terrestrial concern to Othello; contemplating it, he protests, “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!” (III.iii. 294) Nor can he be content with letting his revenge against her be petty, such as by returning adultery for adultery or simply divorcing her and sullying her reputation – only death can satisfy the cruel morality of his epic-warrior identity.
Once he has “proof” of her disloyalty, not even the fact that he still loves her can dissuade him from killing; he declares, “Ay, let her rot, perish, and be damned tonight, for she shall not live” in the same speech as, “O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! She might lie by an emperor’s side and command him tasks! (IV.i. 181-5)”