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Photo of Othello standing proud  in cape, and behind to his right is Iago, standing at parade rest in the shadows: headline "Tis the curse of service: Iago is the Soldier's Soldier: That's Motivation Enough"

Forrest McClendon as Othello (left) and J Hernandez as Iago in the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's Othello. Photo by Chris Miller, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

In Othello, William Shakespeare inserts an extraordinary moment between Desdemona and Iago after their arrival in Cyprus before they know whether Othello has come safely to port—extraordinary in that it is an interchange that has echoes in reality among us military commander spouses. After some public joshing between them, Desdemona suddenly interrupts the wit war by asking, "There's one gone to the harbor?" "Ay, madam," Iago replies. "I am not merry, but I do beguile the thing I am by seeming otherwise," she says and then, in the next line, goes back to the joking. This interlude is not accompanied by a stage direction, but if it is an aside between Desdemona and Iago, it establishes how much Desdemona, following her husband's lead, not only trusts Iago but leans on him herself.

Across the eons, the ubiquitous They have been pondering Iago's motivation in this play. Can it be only that he's upset over not being named Othello's lieutenant? Is it jealousy, whether directed at Cassio, Othello, or Desdemona? Is it the suspicion that Othello cuckolded him? Is it, perhaps, extreme insecurity? Is it racism? Meanwhile, the question I hear more often among modern audiences is how could Othello be so gullible?

My question is when did Shakespeare serve in the military? And I don't mean the 16th century English army or navy, but the 21st century U.S. armed forces. I grew up in the Air Force and was married to the Air Force 20-plus years, and, as a journalist, worked for or with every branch of the U.S. military. To me, Iago's actions and Othello's reactions are integral to the play's military context. Maybe Iago takes his being passed over for promotion to extremes—but maybe not.

Othello's military setting not only factors into Iago's motivation and Othello's gullibility, it provides the means for Iago to carry out his machinations and the environment that smoothes his way. It also offers clues to Iago's true personality that manifests in his sadistic behavior.

Granted, the military I know is 400 years removed from that of Shakespeare's time, but I'm struck by the extent to which Shakespeare establishes a military context that seems so familiar to me. And before I proceed with my observations, I want to state that while I can see Iago and Othello in today's military, I don't consider them representative of today's military. Iago is but one of 16-plus characters in Othello, or just over 5 percent of the play's population. That math could probably be accurately applied to the character of the modern American military, as well. Unfortunately, as it is with Othello itself, it is that 5 percent that hogs the spotlight (even as I write this in an airport waiting lounge I'm hearing a CNN news report of the ongoing sexual assault scandal in the U.S armed forces).

Why so much commentary on this play downplays or even overlooks Iago's internalized persona as a soldier is baffling, considering that his status in the army is foremost in his own mind. He brings it up with his third line in the play. His first two lines are interjections to Roderigo to patiently hear him, and then Iago explains how he sent Othello "Three great ones of the city, in personal suit to make me his lieutenant."

This wasn't just any promotion. Though in today's military, a lieutenant is at or near the bottom of the officer rank structure, in the Venetian army Shakespeare is portraying, the lieutenant is the general's second in command, the vice commander. It doesn't carry a lot of prestige in the army's intersection with the civilian world (note that Cassio is silent in the senate scene), but within the military it is a position of great stature among the soldiers. While the commander provides the vision, sets the policies, and establishes the strategies, the deputy is the one who makes sure the commander's orders are carried out.

"Good Michael, look you to the guard tonight," Othello orders Cassio in Cyprus, and adds,"Let's teach ourselves that honorable stop not to outsport discretion." Cassio replies, "Iago hath direction what to do, but notwithstanding, with my personal eye will I look to't." Here's the chain of command explicitly established: the general turns command over to his deputy (the lieutenant) along with his overriding vision to not outsport discretion, and the deputy passes the order down the ranks to the first sergeant or platoon leader (Iago). For good measure, the deputy here assures the general he will follow up—but Othello has a telling reply we'll address in a bit.

Iago didn't merely covet the lieutenantship; he felt in his heart he earned it as the best man for the job. "I know my price, I am worth no worse a place," he tells Roderigo. Iago then recounts his combat record with Othello "at Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds Christened and heathen." Iago and Othello are war-bred brethren, whereas Cassio, according to Iago, doesn't even have combat experience. He "never set a squadron in the field nor the division of battle knows." Rather, Cassio is "a great arithmetician" and "counter-caster"—he's an accountant. In today's military, such administrative officers are derisively called bean counters, desk jockeys, admin weenies. Cassio's preferment over Iago is doubly galling to an infantry grunt like Iago. Meanwhile, Othello names Iago his ensign or ancient, which in the mid-16th century was the flag bearer in battle. Today, ensign is the lowest officer rank in the U.S. Navy, but in Shakespeare's portrayal of Iago he's akin to Othello's top-ranking noncommissioned officer (NCO).

At this point in Iago's explanation to Roderigo of why he hates the Moor, an interesting insight into Iago's true nature appears. Roderigo, a civilian, remarks that if it were he who had been so jilted, he would have become Othello's hangman. Iago, however, views it from a different perspective. "Why, there's no remedy," he says. "'Tis the curse of service." How true. In the military, if you don't make promotion you don't protest, pout, or plead, you just get on with doing your job or you get out. This reply to Roderigo shows Iago to be a soldier first and foremost, though one who has served long enough to become cynical, saying "Preferment goes by letter and affection, and not by old gradation, where each second stood heir to th'first."

In itself, this does not fully explain Iago's drive for revenge, but this is a play of pathologies, and Iago's is his ego, specifically his military ego. This is a guy who probably sees himself as a general some day and that some day has been waylaid by a damn counter-caster. That's hard for even the most upstanding among us to handle gracefully. Iago has earned his reputation through combat service; in peacetime, he becomes so restless he turns to gulling Roderigo for his adrenaline fix. Meantime, the fierce general he loyally followed all these years has suddenly started courting a young Venetian debutante and selected a pretty boy ("a fellow almost damned in a fair wife," says Iago) as his second in command. All factor into his agitation (latent racism may be present, too).

Then there's that bedeviling rumor. "It is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets [Othello] has done my office," Iago says in his first soliloquy. "I know not if't be true, but I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety." In a later soliloquy, he hammers on this point again, that his suspicion "doth … gnaw my inwards." His wife, Emilia, brings up the accusation herself late in the play. "Some such squire he was that turned your wit the seamy side without and made you to suspect me with the Moor," she says to Iago in Desdemona's presence. Based on Iago's own doubts in the beginning and Emilia's casual dismissal of the rumor later with Othello's wife in the room, we can safely presume that Othello did not cheat with Emilia.

So what? It is the rumor alone that matters to Iago. Such rumors can run rampant in military communities, and whether true or not, they taint opinion among serving men and women. I once heard about a general's wife who had sex with various airmen on almost a daily basis in their home on base. I heard of an affair involving two officers, one of them the wife of a high-ranking member of the unit. I heard of the commander screwing an officer and enlisted woman on his staff. I have no idea if any of these are true, but regarding the last I had such a loathing for that commander that I, for mere suspicion, took it for surety. Maybe, in this respect, I am an Iago.

Except that Iago is also a man with criminal tendencies already established, as he's well into scamming Roderigo as the play begins. Remember, too, that Iago makes his way as he goes: He meditates on a course of action and then develops it as circumstances allow. When he realizes how much psychological power he's gained over Othello, that's when his pathological egotism pushes him over the edge into having Cassio murdered and getting Othello to murder Desdemona.

Which brings us to how Othello could allow himself to get into such a fix in the first place. We'll start where we left off in his exchange with Cassio about setting the guard that first night in Cyprus. "Iago hath direction what to do, but notwisthanding, with my personal eye will I look to't," Cassio says. "Iago is most honest," Othello replies. Critics point to this as one of many ironic lines that exemplify Iago's duplicity, but Othello's statement reads to me as a gentle admonishment of Cassio. The general is essentially telling the lieutenant, "Iago knows what he's doing" with the implied subcontext of "Let him do his job." I can't count the times I've heard commanding officers issue such rein-tugging hints to over-zealous lieutenants. As we'll see later, Cassio gets the hint.

Military ranks are divided between officers and enlisted (including NCOs). At the top of the NCO ranks, you have the sergeant major in the Army and Marine Corps, the master chief petty officer in the Navy, and the chief master sergeant in the Air Force, the latter two going by the sobriquet "Chief." Though even the lowest grade officer outranks them, senior NCOs are afforded the utmost regard by even the highest-ranking officers. I used to work with a retired Air Force chief master sergeant, and my wife, a retired colonel, always called her "Chief" out of respect. Whenever I told my wife about some difficulty I was having at work, she'd advise, "and what does the chief say?" Rare is the commanding officer who doesn't have a tight relationship with the unit's senior NCO, and in many cases the commander is closer to the chief or sergeant major than to the deputy.

It's clear from the stage business established in the dialogue that Iago fills the role of sergeant major to General Othello, and Shakespeare goes to great lengths to establish such a commander/chief relationship between Othello and Iago.

  • The first conversation between general and ancient is one of easy bonhomie that transcends rank, and in it Iago is establishing his loyalty.
  • Iago knows of Othello's elopement with Desdemona before Cassio does; though Cassio served as the couple's courtship liaison, he even asks who Othello has married when Iago brings it up.
  • Othello requests that Desdemona be put in the care of Iago's wife.

Cassio and Iago in uniform--Cassio's has a red braid on his left shoulder--stands at attention.

Iago and Othello on their knees, both in uniform, Othello's with shoulder bourds and gold and red braids, with his collar undone as he looks at Iago with concern
Top, Iago (Benjamin Curns, right) with Cassio (Patrick Midgley), and, bottom, with Othello (René Thornton Jr) in the American Shakespeare Center's Othello at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photos by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

Thus do commanders put utmost trust in their senior NCOs. Every good senior leader expects his or her most-senior NCO to "speak truth to power." In return, one of the unspoken duties of a good NCO is to watch his or her commander's back, making sure the commander is not blindsided. Iago manipulates this commander-NCO paradigm. He drops casual observations to pique Othello's attention: "Ha? I like not that," an under-his-breath exclamation as they see Cassio steal away from Desdemona, spoken loudly enough for Othello to hear. Iago offers good counsel: "Beware, my lord, of jealousy." Iago briefs Othello on situational awareness: "I know our country disposition well: In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks they dare not show their husbands." And Othello demands Iago speak the truth: "I prithee speak to me as to thy thinkings, as thou dost ruminate, and give thy worst of thoughts the worst of words." Iago first asserts his duty up and down the ranks: "Good my lord, pardon me. Though I am bound to every act of duty, I am not bound to that all slaves are free to. Utter my thoughts?" With this, Iago ironically gets Othello to set aside rank. "Thou does conspire against thy friend, Iago," Othello says.

Bred in the other half of the commander-NCO paradigm, Othello readily gets caught up in his ensign's web. And no matter how close commanders and senior NCOs become and how much mutual respect they may hold for each other, the moment they ignore their ranks and treat each other as equals, chaos comes.

It is also because of his reputation as a long-serving loyal soldier to Othello that Iago is able to ensnare Cassio in the first place. When Iago comes on stage after Othello and Desdemona have gone off to bed, Cassio tells him they "must to the watch." But Iago protests: "Not this hour, lieutenant; 'tis not yet ten o'th' clock." Cassio has heard his general say not six lines before that "Iago is most honest" with its implied admonishment, so he's going to go along with the command sergeant major here (he might even figure that Othello would, too). Iago proposes Cassio join the party of revelers as a show of esprit de corps (and learns from this that the desk jockey can't handle his liquor—but the real soldier probably suspected that anyway), and after Cassio departs drunk, Iago surreptitiously imputes him to the other soldiers, calling him a "soldier fit to stand by Caesar and give direction" but one with a vice for drunkenness that could be his undoing. This sets up Cassio as the presumed bad guy when he comes back on stage running after Roderigo with sword drawn. Iago uses the same imputative device to slander Othello later in the play. "It is not honesty in me to speak what I have seen and known," he says to Lodovico after Othello strikes Desdemona in public. "You shall observe him, and his own courses will denote him so that I may save my speech." This is a soldier who knows how to walk the tightrope of loyalty to both his commander and his government while still covering his own rear.

Iago also plays the dual loyalty card brilliantly when he testifies about the drunken brawl to Othello. "I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth than it should do offence to Michael Cassio," he says, and upon this prelude, he tells the truth—and what he describes are, indeed, the facts—that inevitably will lead to the cashiering of Cassio. Accountability is the lot of the ranking officer—in this instance, Lt. Cassio—and Iago is certain of this before he proceeds.

The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's recent production of Othello highlighted Iago's misogynist tendencies, and even in this context the soldier's persona may factor into his actions. For it's not just Cassio who has usurped Iago's place as war-bred brother of Othello; Desdemona has, too. "Our general's wife is now the general," he tells Cassio, and I sense this belief piles on the other sleights he's endured to further turn his stomach. Not only that, Othello brings Desdemona and Iago's wife along as he prepares to defend Cyprus from an invasion. This is a war zone! Even today, while we are now sending women into combat (to the gnashing of teeth of many an old Iago-like soldier) we certainly don't send soldiers' civilian wives (or husbands, for that matter) into war zones, or even potential war zones, as some posts in South Korea are unaccompanied assignments. For a professional soldier like Iago, this enforced domesticity means the war zone is no longer his comfort zone.

I've encountered some Iagos (just not quite so pathological). I know of more than a few Othellos who overextended their trust in their subordinates beyond rank and suffered downfalls as a result. I've not seen a subordinate getting his or her commander to kill a spouse—at least not literally. But I have no doubt from my personal experience and knowledge that reality could mirror this fiction some day (if it hasn't already), just as this fiction so adeptly mirrors today's reality.

Eric Minton
June 4, 2013

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