Cassius was a jealous, scheming, hypocritical jerk of a politician – and Caesar saw straight through him. He gave the perfect portrait of the ratbag we describe as a ‘smiling assassin.’
Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous……
Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous. (1.2.192 – 210)
That is word perfect. Cassius envies Caesar for his successes and standing. He only goes back to his youth to belittle and mock Caesar. He works on the politically naïve Brutus by saying that Caesar makes the Roman nobility look small – ‘petty even.’
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours? (1.2. 135 – 142)
His envy of Caesar drives him to seek to plant jealousy in the breast of the ‘noble’ Brutus. And he believes, with all crooked politicians, that every man has his price. He thinks he can play Caesar like a violin.
Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed: therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced? (1.2.307 – 312)
Cassius is one of the assassins and he makes the banal cry – the banality of evil – ‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ (Yes, and who bloody for, Mate?)
Antony said that Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all and that he was the only conspirator who did not kill ‘in envy of great Caesar.’ Well, Shakespeare did a number on chivalry with Falstaff and Troilus and Cressida, and in my view he did a number on nobility with Brutus and Cassius. One was a hopeless political ingénue; the other was a dreadful political skunk.
When Othello prefers Cassio to Iago for the office of being his lieutenant, Iago is jealous of Cassio and he envies and hates both Cassio and Othello because they are above him on the ladder – and, to boot, Othello is not even a white man! It may be one thing for a commissioned officer from Sandhurst to prefer a man from Eton and the Guards over an NCO from a coal-mining family in Durham – but, in the name of God, how do you respond if the Sandhurst chap is black? Iago plans revenge by inducing Othello to believe that Cassio is having an affair with Othello’s wife, Desdemona. This promises a ‘Divinity of hell!’ (2.3.350) The evil is Satanic. An ancient theologian, Origen, said this of the AntiChrist –
…..since evil is specially characterised by its diffusion, and attains its greatest height when it simulates the appearance of the good, for that reason are signs, and marvels, and miracles found to accompany evil, through the co-operation of its father, the Devil.
That is Iago. And for many reasons, Othello is a ripe target. His tragic flaw is that he has not one iota of what Keats discerned in the author of this play as ‘Negative Capability’ – ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable seeking out of fact and reason’. In the space of about a hundred lines, and in the course of a discussion on the first day of his honeymoon, Othello has gone from threatening to kill his sergeant to getting his sergeant to kill his lieutenant while he works out the best way to kill his wife. And all because he could not bear being left in doubt.
Othello therefore stands for the cancer in our public life now. People crave a clear tribal response regardless of the evidence. Othello is the kind of fodder that Fox and Sky News thrive on – a sucker for any conspiracy story, or any bloated fool who flogs them.
Iago is very much like Satan. A C Bradley said of him:
..Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good, and loves evil purely for itself. His action is not prompted by any plain motive like revenge, jealousy or ambition. It springs from a ‘motiveless malignity, or a disinterested delight in the pain of others….
Iago, then, stands for the other great cancer of our public life now – egoism unleashed.
How does this stack up against the ‘banality of evil’ seen by Hannah Arendt? Well, for a start, Eichmann was real. Leontes and Iago are figments of imagination who played no part in the murder of six million people. Arendt had the vital insight that Eichmann was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.
Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’. Except for his extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.
Perhaps the most singular clash of good and evil comes with Billy Budd. Billy is as handsome as he is simple and innocent. But John Claggart, the Master-at Arms cannot tolerate this simple beauty or goodness.
… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence. To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it? …The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.
Like Polyxenes, Melville goes back to the very beginning to describe primal innocence. We are told that the ‘Handsome Sailor…in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.’ The vicious leer of Robert Ryan as Claggart in the movie chills the blood. But this kind of evil is best expressed in the libretto for the Britten opera written by E M Forster and another.
O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
Would that I never encountered you!
Would that I lived in my own world always,
in that depravity to which I was born.
There I found peace of a sort, there I established
an order such as reigns in Hell…….
Having seen you, what choice remains to me?
None, none! I’m doomed to annihilate you,
I’m vowed to your destruction. ….
No, you cannot escape!
With hate and envy I’m stronger than love….
O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
You surely in my power tonight.
Nothing can defend you.
Nothing! So may it be!
For what hope remains if love can escape?
If love still lives and grows strong where I cannot enter,
what hope is there in my own dark world for me?
No! I cannot believe it! That were torment to keen.
I, John Claggart,
Master-at-Arms upon the ‘Indomitable’,
have you in my power, and I will destroy you.
‘With hate and envy I’m stronger than love’. Even without Britten’s thumping score, this is elementally vicious. Putting to one side the real world, including Auschwitz and Hiroshima, have you ever seen evil like this?