Comrades at odds: About the life of a mercenary soldier

A soldier did not actually have to be Venetian to be in the Venetian army during the Italian Renaissance. The prosperous Venetian economy in the 17th century afforded the state the best mercenary soldiers from across the Mediterranean. Mercenary soldiers are volunteers who make their living as paid fighters. Unlike the soldiers of a military or a militia, a mercenary soldier does not have to be a resident or citizen of the country for which they fight (they rarely were back in the 1500s). As a free agent, each mercenary holds an individual contract with a state or country.

Unlike the standing armies of a military or militia, mercenary armies assemble for a set amount of time. Soldiers are hired with the exact skills needed for a campaign and, at the campaign’s conclusion, the soldiers either renew their contracts with their employer or move on to fight elsewhere. Such turnover brings together mercenaries of assorted skills and cultural backgrounds. Mercenaries travel far and frequently, in pursuit of financial gain and excitement without allegiance to a particular country or regard for the politics of a situation. This is how Venetians, Florentines and a North African Moor serve alongside the Greek Cypriot militia, united under Venice, in Othello, the Moor of Venice.

The temporary nature of a mercenary army fosters alliances of necessity amongst newfound comrades. Older soldiers, like Othello, hold seniority. His experience, skills and age prove him capable of commanding the Venetian army, and his top position as their general demonstrates the Senate’s trust in his decisions. The commander bestows rank as befits the situation, and the state either supports the decision or deputes another soldier in that place.

Before the play begins, Othello promotes scholar-soldier Michael Cassio to lieutenant, placing Cassio as Othello’s right hand man. As a young soldier on his first campaign, Cassio has yet to prove himself worthy of the title. Iago is Othello’s battle-tested ancient. The ancient is third-in-line to the commander, directly below the lieutenant. Iago is a topnotch assassin. His years of experience as a mercenary, extensive knowledge of warfare and impressive combat techniques should have primed him for the lieutenant position.

The fluid nature of the mercenary hierarchy reflects the specialized skills of the soldiers. Mercenary soldiers are individuals working together within an organized system to achieve a united objective. Employers value soldiers with unique abilities. They hire soldier by soldier to assemble an army wherein the soldiers’ complementary abilities strengthen them as a unit. The unintentional side effect of such a system is that it teaches mercenaries to retain their individuality. Their fellows are impermanent and could become either competition for jobs or just as easily enemies down the line. The precariousness of this camaraderie makes mercenary soldiers apt to turn against their imposed own. Every fight in Othello pits the Venetian mercenaries against one of their own comrades; not a single battle is against a Turk.