Cassius: A Tragic Villain
by John Drury
Cassius is often regarded as a master of villainy. He even has come to be compared with one of the greatest of Shakespearean villains, Iago. On account of his manipulative abilities and his jealous motives, such a comparison is justified. On the other hand, when contrasted with Iago Cassius shows himself as no consistent villain. Cassius is also a tragic figure. Unlike Iago, who succeeds in his plots until he is caught, Cassius fails in the execution his treachery. The fatal flaw that leads to this failure is his continuous submission to Brutus. By combing both villainous and tragic elements, Shakespeare forms a tragic villain hybrid in the character of Cassius.
In order to illustrate Cassius’ development as a tragic villain, we will discuss each element in turn. We will first define the term “villain” and compare Cassius with Iago. This examination will reveal his persuasive abilities and his jealous motives. Secondly we will define the term “tragic figure” and contrast Cassius with Iago. This discussion ought to produce the realization that, just like other tragic figures, he fails because of a tragic flaw. We will conclude with a comment regarding the impact such a hybrid character has on the play as a whole.
A villain may defined simply as a play’s antagonist. This may be too simple of a definition, however, for the term “villain” implies a certain sense of mastery at reveling in evil. An able villain treats his treachery as an art form. The villain has a set purpose and will do anything to achieve it. If possible, he or she will use other characters to accomplish this purpose. Although not always necessary, a villain often has deep motives of envy or revenge.
Within the lines of Othello one finds Iago, who may be Shakespeare’s most masterful villain. Iago embodies all of the above qualities. His motives are envy for Cassio’s ascendancy to lieutenant and anger toward Othello for giving this promotion. His purpose is to ruin both of these men by bringing Cassio to dishonor and tempting Othello to kill his wife Desdemona. Iago is quite able to manipulate nearly everyone in the play to accomplish these aims.
Cassius also displays the above characteristics. He is motivated by envy over Caesar’s rise to power. He aims to have Caesar eliminated at any cost. He persuades Casca, Decius, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius and even the honorable Brutus to carry out this plot. Just as Iago works behind the scenes, so too does Cassius encourage the conspirators to rally around Brutus.
Not only do Iago and Cassius both match the profile of a typical villain, they also share specific techniques of persuasion. For instance, Iago uses politeness to gain confidence from Othello (Gilbert 316). By the use of such respectful attitudes he is able to more aptly allure his honorable prey. Cassius too showers Brutus and others with honor and compliments. Furthermore, irony pervades Iago’s persuasive dialogues as he dares to warn Othello against the very passions that he is trying to fire up in him: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (III.iii.65-67). Through this irony Iago hides his real intentions. In a similar way Cassius “uses repetition and convoluted syntax, making it difficult to find his true meaning” (Carducci 8). Both Iago and Cassius use their words to confuse and manipulate other characters to do what they want.
As crafty villains, Iago and Cassius know how to persuade others. They both choose the path of least resistance by tempting their victim’s own flaws. Just as Iago takes advantage of Othello’s obsession with his reputation, Cassius manipulates “the weaknesses in his friend’s character: Brutus’ concern with reputation, appearance, and pride” (Carducci 7). He uses Brutus’ sense of honor to lure him into the conspiracy: “everyone doth wish / You had but that opinion of yourself / Which every noble Roman bears of you” (II.i.89-91). Cassius tempts Brutus with the notion that he might finally find honor in himself if he only joined the conspiracy.
Cassius is a masterful manipulator in his own right. For instance, Cassius says to Brutus, “And since you know you cannot see yourself / So well as by reflection, I your glass / Will modestly discover to yourself / That of yourself which you yet know not of” (I.ii.67-70). By this he recognizes and utilizes Brutus’ lack of self-knowledge (Orkin 223). Cassius knows he can manipulate Brutus, whose “honorable mettle may be wrought / From that it is disposed” (I.ii.306-307). However, Sharon O’Dair contends that Cassius merely “plays the midwife to Brutus’ thoughts” (294). If this were true, Cassius is no less of an able manipulator. Just as Iago plays on the mild jealousy already present in Othello, Cassius chooses to water his victim’s tendencies rather than plant brand new seeds of treachery.
Although he may at first appear as merely politically motivated, the reader comes to realize Cassius’ deeply envious motives. He recalls a time when he saved Caesar from rushing waters and believers that Caesar has no more right to be treated like a god than him. Furthermore, he projects this envy onto Brutus: “Brutus, and Caesar; what should be in that Caesar? / Why should that name be sounded more than yours?” (I.ii.142-143). Some have denied such personal motives, claiming that Brutus and Cassius merely wanted to maintain the status quo (Visser 29). Brutus may claim to “know no personal cause to spurn at him, / But for the general” (II.i.16). Yet no such honorable a motive can be found in Cassius. With regard to his abilities and motives, Cassius is undeniably a villain.
However, Cassius’ characterization is incomplete if it includes only his villainy. Cassius is also a tragic figure. What does it mean to designate him as a tragic figure? A tragic character begins at a place of high stature and ends in ruin or death. The cause of this fall is often a tragic flaw within the character. There has been much discussion regarding Brutus’ status as a tragic figure. We shall see that Cassius also fits these characteristics.
Cassius’ tragic characterization is illustrated well by contrasting him with Iago. Whereas Iago begins at a lowly position, Cassius, by virtue of being a member of the Senate, begins at a place of high stature. Upon his death, Titinius remarks that “The sun of Rome is set” (V.iii.64). He is even honored by Caesar: “He reads much; / He is a great observer, and he looks / Quite through the deeds of men” (I.ii.202-204). In addition, a villain is almost always aware of his or her own evil. For instance, in Much Ado About Nothing, Don Jon admits that he is “a plain-dealing villain” (I.iii.29). Iago also confesses his villainy, which finds its source in “Divinity of hell!” (II.iii.343). No such villainous confession can be found in Cassius’ lines.
Iago and Cassius both end in ruin. Yet while Iago is imprisoned and stabbed because his treachery was revealed, Cassius falls victim to his own fatal flaw. Iago had no fatal flaw; he was just evil. He was a successful villain who was caught. Cassius, on the other hand, fails to complete his purposes. He wanted to rid Rome of Caesar and his kind, which would include Antony. “Let Antony and Caesar fall together,” he says (II.i.61). Yet despite his usual craftiness, Cassius is unable to persuade the conspirators to kill them both. Why does he capitulate so easily on this matter, when it is clear that the conspirators’ “fatal mistake had been to spare the life of Antony” (Wilson 25)?
Cassius’ capitulation with regards to Antony is illustrative of his fatal flaw: his submission to Brutus. Had the conspirators let Antony and Caesar fall together, they may have lived. This Cassius knew and reiterated after they murdered Caesar: “But yet have I a mind / That fears him [Antony] much, and my misgiving still / Falls shrewdly to the purpose” (III.i.147). He remains suspicious of Antony and therefore does not give in to Brutus’ argument. Rather, he gives in to Brutus himself.
Both Iago and Cassius flatter their victims. Yet Cassius may believe some of what he says, for he continuously submits to Brutus. While Iago remains in control of the treachery throughout the play, Cassius quickly becomes Brutus’ “sidekick.” As we have already seen, this submission leads the whole conspiracy to ruin as a quite living Antony avenges Caesar’s death.
Cassius’ near obsession with Brutus is best illustrated in Act II, Scene 3. Brutus confronts Cassius’ realism and pragmatism regarding bribes and war plans. Brutus still believes the murder of Caesar to have been a act of justice. Cassius is forced to show his loyalty to their ideals. Brutus is trying to make Cassius experience the same inner conflict that he went through initially. Although Cassius responds faithfully, his loyalty is to Brutus, not the cause. Cassius is never torn by an ethical dilemma, for he always wanted to do what was politically expedient. He is rather torn between his pragmatism and his beloved friend Brutus. He cries out with a dagger pointed to his heart, “Strike, as thou didst at Caesar; for I know, / When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better / Than ever thou lovedst Cassius” (IV.iii.104-106). Cassius’ obsession allows him to fall into Brutus’ idealism. This is his fatal flaw.
Cassius’ practical mind knew full well they would lose if they sought Antony at Philippi: “Tis better that the enemy seek: / So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers, / Doing himself offence; whilst we lying still / Are full of rest, defence and nimbleness” (IV.iii.199-202). He once again capitulates to Brutus, and they meet their fate in Philippi. Cassius’ death is exceedingly tragic, for he asks Pindarus to run him through based on a false report of Titinius’ death. As this “sun of Rome” sets, he dies not as a punished villain but a tragic figure. As Messala puts it, Cassius was done in by his “Mistrust of good success” (V.iii.67). His “error,” rather than his evil, killed him.
In Julius Caesar, Cassius is both a villain and a tragic figure. On the one hand, his abilities of persuasion and envious motives prove him a villain comparable to Iago. On the other hand, his fatal submission to Brutus makes him a tragic figure. This Shakespearean hybrid confuses the audience’s sympathies. Whose tragedy is this play about? Caesar’s and Antony’s, or Brutus’ and Cassius’? The play leaves this question open in order to advance the theme of the ambiguity of power and justice. The discussion of Cassius as a hybrid of villainous and tragic elements is significant because of its contribution to this theme. Furthermore, it reveals Cassius as a far more complicated and dynamic character than has been previously recognized.
Carducci, Jane. “Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” Language and Literature 13 (1988): 1-19.
Gilbert, Anthony. “Techniques of Persuasion in Julius Caesar and Othello.” Neophilologus 81.2 (April 1997): 309-323.
O’Dair, Sharon. “Social Role and the Making of Identity in Julius Caesar.” Studies in English Literature 33.2 (Spring 1993): 289-307.
Orkin, Martin. “Proverbial Allusion in Julius Caesar.” Pretexts: Studies in Writing and Culture 7.2 (1998): 213-234.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed., William Aldis Wright. Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, 1944.
Visser, Nicholas. “Plebeian Politics in Julius Caesar.” Shakespeare in Southern Africa 7 (1994): 22-31.
Wilson, Richard. “A Brute Part: Julius Caesar and the Rites of Violence.” Cahiers Elisabethains 50 (Oct. 1996): 19-32.