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'Tis the Soldier's Life

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'Tis the Soldier's Life


Come, Desdemona. 'Tis the soldier’s life

To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.

—Othello (Act II, scene 3)


Francesco Fernando Alfieri. La Picca, e la Bandiera. Padua, 1641

The story of Othello reflects the changing world of Renaissance warfare. By Shakespeare’s day the armored horsemen of the medieval battlefield had lost much of their effectiveness in the face of improved infantry equipment and tactics. Armor was still common, but as firearms became more powerful and reliable, armor had to be made thicker and heavier to withstand them. The extra weight became excessive, and soldiers began to abandon parts of their armor, keeping only the protection for their head and torso.

Armies no longer consisted of feudal knights and peasants, but of full-time professionals. These long-term professional soldiers developed a culture of their own that was increasingly separated from the culture of the civilian world and distinct from the traditional concepts of chivalry and feudalism.

The tragedy of Othellois heavily informed by the emerging professional world of the Renaissance soldier, set against the backdrop of the Venetian garrison on Cyprus. Othello has chosen the bookish Florentine Cassio for his second-in-command, appointing his old comrade-in-arms Iago as ensign (standard-bearer);an honorable position, but without real authority.Iago's fury at this slight takes itself out on Desdemona, who has joined her new husband amidst the garrison. Desdemona's story is played out in this alien world of the military camp. She is cut off from the usual civilian and female networks on which she might normally rely. Next »

Jeffrey Forgeng - Professional Armies

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